Tiny electronic trackers small enough to attach to a flying insect are the latest weapon being used to stave off an Asian hornet invasion that threatens Britain’s honeybees.
By tagging the buzzing predators with the devices, scientists have been able to pursue them to their hidden nests.
Once located, the nests and hornets within them can be destroyed – allowing nearby bees to continue pollinating in peace.
Bee keepers are seriously worried about the Asian hornet, which is already well established in France and was first reported in the UK in 2016.
The hornets prey on honeybees, hovering like attack helicopters outside their hives and grabbing them on the wing.
The bees are dismembered before being carried back to the hornets’ nest to be fed to larvae.
In the new offensive against the hornets, scientists testing the tracking technique in southern France and Jersey were able to uncover five previously undiscovered nests.
Experts hope the research, funded by the environment agency Defra, will help turn the tables on the Asian hornet and prevent it colonising the UK.
Dr Peter Kennedy, who led the University of Exeter team, said: “Our new method of tracking offers a really important new tool to tackle the spread of this invader, providing an efficient means of finding hornets’ nests in urban, rural and wooded environments.”
The radio tags, made by British firm Biotrack Ltd, weigh just 0.2g and are attached to the hornet’s body by sewing thread.
Powered by a minute battery, they transmit a signal that can be followed wherever the insect flies.
Asian hornets were accidentally brought to France in 2004, probably in an imported shipment of goods.
Since then the dark brown and orange insects have spread rapidly through France and started to invade neighbouring countries. They have also become established in the Channel Islands.
In 2016, an Asian hornet nest was discovered in Gloucestershire and destroyed. Another nest was found in Woolacombe, Devon, last year and in April a single Asian hornet was reported in Lancashire.
Nicola Spence, Defra’s deputy director for Plant and Bee Health, said: “This work is key for ensuring a rapid response to Asian hornets when sightings are confirmed, and in future bee inspectors will be able to use this technique to take swift action.”
Professor Juliet Osborne, another member of the University of Exeter team whose findings appear in the journal Communications Biology, said: “It is vital to find the nests early in the season to prevent the hornet spreading, as later in the year hundreds of new queens emerge and disperse from each nest, each with the potential to make new nests.”