Honeybees face new extinction threat: killer hornets are closing in

Enjoy Portuguese honey while you can, it is becoming an increasingly threatened commodity. Not just because of modern farming methods, mobile phone masts and parasites, but because of deadly “Asian hornets” (Vespa velutina) which are proving not simply unstoppable, but appear to be multiplying at a terrifying rate.

Says Público which has been following the insect’s spread since it was first detected in Portugal in 2011 the Asian hornet poses a threat not only to honeybees and honey production, but to humans as well.

A sting from one of these creatures can kill people who are allergic to its venom, sending them rapidly into cardiac arrest.

Two years ago, authorities were complaining that they weren’t getting enough support to tackle the insect’s relentless spread (click here).

Today, the number of nests detected have doubled on figures for the same time last year – and as environmentalists warn, real numbers could see these tallies increasing even more.

Put simply, 2537 nests were ‘detected’ in 2016, 4495 were counted in 2017 (between January and November), and going back to 2015 this means over 10,000 breeding points have been identified.

Meantime, the insect is on course to arrive in the Algarve as Público warned it would two years ago.

With honey production already under threat from pesticides and other environmental factors, authorities are hoping to come up with a ‘plan’ on how to combat Vespa velutina – though scientists throughout Europe suggest this is an almost impossible task.

Last summer, researchers from the UK universities of Warwick and Newcastle predicted that even if initial invasions could be controlled, “the presence of a growing population of these hornets in Northern Europe makes future invasions inevitable”.

Asian hornets are on the small side and coloured black with a yellow band on their rear.

Six deaths have been recorded as a result of stings in France, with one recorded in Spanish Galicia in November last year.

So far, there have been two deaths linked to Asian hornet stings in Portugal, one of a 20-year-old in Vila Nova da Gaia in 2014, another of a 63-year-old man in Vila Verde in 2015.

According to Público, honey bees threatened by these predators “stop going out, producing less honey, weakening and dying”.

The Ministry of Agriculture is said to be aware that the insect has spread to at least 12 Portuguese districts. It is described as “very aggressive”, not only attacking bees, but anyone or anything that inadvertently threatens its nests.

Says tabloid Correio da Manhã, an angry Asian hornet can pursue people “for hundreds of metres”.

Nowhere in any of the national stories does there seem much glimmer of hope. But by happy chance, we seem to have found one through an online reader.

Steve Kane lives ‘up north’ in an area that used to be so plagued by Asian hornets that he and his family “had to pick our pears at night”, to avoid being stung.

Then, two years ago, he noticed the numbers of hornets were “dropping off” and “not because of official action”.

“I started spotting huge gas-bottle-sized nests high in the inaccessible branches of oak trees, gutted as if attacked by some very tough predator, and then further destroyed by wind and rain.

“I thought for some time who or what could be the hero, then realised that some of the buzzards that we see around were ‘funny looking’ they were paler on their bellies and a slightly different shape”.

The buzzards were honey buzzards which, according to Wikipedia, “live mainly on the larvae and nests of wasps and hornets”.

Kane got researching and soon realised that the damage to hornets’ nests he had spotted were “identical to the damage inflicted by Japanese honey buzzards” on (…yes, you’ve got it) Asian hornets.

“I have seen no official reports of this”, Kane told us – and now his main concern is that “idiots don’t shoot the honey buzzards”, as they may be the only effective shield between Portugal’s honeybees and decimation.

Wikipedia confirms that the European Honey Buzzard is indeed “the only known predator of the Asian giant hornet”, as it is equipped with long toes and claws adapted to raking and digging, as well as scale-like feathering on its head thought to be a defence against the stings of its victims”.

Honey Buzzards are also believed to have a chemical deterrent in their feathers “that protect them from wasp attack”.

Says Kane, these birds “sit more vertically on a branch or wire than a normal buzzard, and tend to hang around for longer looking out for wasps or hornets to track them back to their nests”.

He tells us he has sent photographs and his findings to the Warwick University professor leading research into the Asian hornet scourge as this “seemed easier than trying to find local interest”.

In other words, it is a case of ‘watch this space’ but it could be the answer that Portugal’s endangered honeybees have been praying for as they struggle to stay alive.

Pioneering scheme brings blighted swarms from north and centre to Algarve

With Asian hornets just one of the terrible blights affecting Portugal’s bees, Portuguese weekly Jornal Barlavento carries a fascinating report this week explaining how honeybees facing starvation due to the damage caused by last summer’s wildfires in the north and centre are being carefully transported to the Algarve “as an emergency measure”. Right now 300 hives have been installed between São Teotónio in the Alentejo close to the border with the Algarve and Algoz, in the borough of Silves. The idea is to bring in another 500 to feast on the Algarve’s bounty of heather, thyme, medronho and orange trees until it is safe to “go home”.

[email protected]