Record sightings of Asian hornets are raising fears that they could soon become established in the UK.
There has been a sharp rise in sightings of the invasive species in the UK this year.
The previous two years only had two sightings each, whereas there have been 22 confirmed so far in 2023 with nests found in East Sussex, Kent, Devon and Dorset.
The government’s strategy is to locate and kill every hornet and destroy all nests to prevent them from staying over winter and multiplying.
Once they are established, it is almost impossible to get rid of them.
NEED TO KNOW: Asian hornets are smaller than native hornets and can be identified by their orange faces, yellow-tipped legs and darker abdomens. The Department for the Environment says the Asian hornet poses no greater risk to human health than other wasps or hornets but can cause damage to honey bee colonies and other beneficial insects.
The insects feed on native bees and wasps, damaging biodiversity.
Bumblebee conservation expert Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex, said he feared it was likely the hornets had become established in Kent.
Speaking to The Guardian, he said: “It is a bit too early to say for sure but the situation looks ominous, with a record nine nests found and destroyed this year so far. If even one nest evades detection and reproduces it will then probably become impossible to prevent them establishing.
“I think it is inevitable that they will eventually establish in the UK, and once here it is hard to see how they could be eliminated.
“The arrival of Asian hornets would provide a significant new threat to insect populations that are already much reduced due to the many other pressures they face, such as habitat loss, pesticide use and so on.”
Nicola Spence, the chief plant and bee health officer at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “Evidence from previous years suggested that all 13 Asian hornet nests found in the UK between 2016 and 2022 were separate incursions and there is nothing to suggest that Asian hornets are established in the UK.
“We have not seen any evidence which demonstrates that Asian hornets discovered in Kent this year were produced by queens that overwintered.
“We plan to do further detailed analysis over winter to assess this.”
The public is being urged to be extra vigilant and to report any sightings immediately.
It is important to take care not to approach or disturb a nest.