Asian Hornet Vespa velutina


Posted by Andy Sivell | Posted in Asian hornet, Beekeeping advice | Posted on 21-11-2010

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I never had a problem with wasps before I took up beekeeping. That is to say, they never bothered me. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the RSPCA (do they care about insects?) I actually rather enjoyed flicking rulers and elastic bands at them, in which respect I’m no different from 99% of all males, I’m sure.

That changed when I got my first colony however. The little so-and-so’s steal honey and generally give bees a hard time, which meant that elastic bands and rulers were no longer going to cut it as far as I was concerned. Once I’d got a beehive of my own I bulk-bought wasp spray from the local Homebase and, when that wasn’t enough, brought in council reinforcements. The garden became a bit of a wasp no-fly zone.

But wasps are big girls blouses compared to hornets. Last summer I was in the shed when a hornet flew in. It was a bit like being joined by a Lancaster bomber. Hornets are big and make an unmissably loud droning noise when they fly. I’m also told that they’re bad-tempered and that their sting hurts more than anything, both facts I’m ready to believe without any supporting evidence.

Vespa velutina aka Asian Hornet

Vespa velutina (photo courtesy of Wikipedia). I'm indebted to David Lewis for putting me right.

Last week I received an email from the National Bee Unit about the Asian Hornet. It’s making its way from …er, Asia, across Europe and to the UK. And it’s big. Really big. I tip my hat to Douglas Adams when I say that you just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think that you’re common or garden British hornet is big, but that’s just peanuts compared to its Asian cousin. Up to 45mm in length, it’s half insect, half golf ball – with hypodermic needle attachment. Its sting is apparently 6mm long.

Vespa velutina (so named because it’s the size of a small scooter, and just as irritating) raiding parties can apparently decimate a colony in hours. They sting or cut their way through guards and workers before setting to work on the larvae, which they then take back to feed their own young. Until I received the email I’d been under the impression that there had only been a few sightings in France. It turns out there had only been a few sightings in northern France. They’ve been at home in southern and central France for quite some time now, according to a really good article in the Bulletin Technique Apicole (reproduced in the September 2007 edition of Bee Craft). Makes you wonder why they can’t just stay there and enjoy the food and sunshine.

Vespa mandarinia

Not Vespa velutina as previously captioned, but in fact Vespa mandarinia (photo courtesy of

Anyway, a species of Chinese honey bee Apis carana has developed a really efficient way of defending itself against attack. A crowd of bees pounces on the hornet and completely envelopes it before flapping its wings to raise the temperature of the ball to around 45 degrees Celsius. The honey bees can just about cope with the heat, but the hornet can’t and is roasted alive.

Naturalised European honey bees Apis mellifera, have begun to adopt the same defence strategy – in the Far East, at least – but slightly less effectively. Fewer workers attach themselves to the ball. Which brings me to my question: how do you teach honey bees to do this stuff before they get decimated by the yellow peril? Answers on a postcard please.