Scientists fear future of UK bees as Asian hornet sightings rise

A stock shot of an Asian hornet, or vespa velutina, which has been spotted in Rayleigh in Essex.
Credit: PA
The Asian hornet is not to be confused with the Asian Giant hornet. Credit: AP

Asian hornets are travelling around the world at an "unprecedented rate," according to scientists concerned over the future of bees in the UK.

The insect, among other invasive alien species, are migrating because of humans - threatening native plants and animals with extinction while damaging human health and livelihoods.

Their cost to the world economy is estimated to be at least 423 billion dollars (£336 billion) a year, having quadrupled every decade since 1970.

The scientists also estimate invasive species have caused or contributed to 60% of global extinctions.

The North American grey squirrel has pushed the native red squirrel to the fringes of the British Isles. Credit: PA

Asian hornet nests have been found in East Sussex, Kent, Devon and Dorset, as the insects continue to devastate in Europe.

They prey on native honey bees and can damage the ecological role they play as well as disrupting commercial beekeeping, and were first spotted in the UK in September 2016.

Invasive alien species are present on every continent on Earth, including Antarctica, and are one of the main causes of biodiversity loss alongside climate change, direct exploitation, land- and sea-use change and pollution.

Elsewhere in the UK, the North American grey squirrel has pushed the native red squirrel to the fringes of the British Isles, outcompeting it for food while carrying a disease lethal to the red squirrel but which does not affect the grey squirrel.

Although loved by gardeners, rhododendron is another invasive alien species in the UK, having originated in the Himalayas.

It harbours a fungus that kills other plant life and in Scotland it is rapidly displacing many other species.

Scientists are concerned that climate change will make conditions favourable for other alien species in the UK and they are particularly wary of the Asian hornet, as its sting can cause an allergic reaction in some people.

Giant hogweed also grows in the UK and it can cause blisters on the skin while other plants that can trigger hay fever and insects carrying diseases may become more common in future.

The scientists have asked people to be on the lookout for invasive species such as the Asian hornet and to report them so they can be eradicated.

Professor Helen Roy, of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and one of the report’s co-chairs, said: “We are talking in this particular context, not about those range-expanding species that are native, but about invasive alien species that are being moved by humans at really unprecedented rates and then we’re mixing them together in different ways.

Although loved by gardeners, rhododendron is another invasive alien species in the UK. Credit: PA

“Of course, extinction is such an important thing to be considering, but also it’s really important to think about the extinction of interactions, when one species is displacing another or reducing its numbers to such very low abundance.

“We are causing ecological changes that perhaps will lead to really quite unpredictable outcomes in terms of the functioning of these ecosystems and the benefits we receive from them.”

Governments around the world have committed to protecting 30% of the Earth’s land and seas for nature by 2030, and 143 of them have approved the new IPBES report as providing some of the scientific knowledge towards achieving this goal.

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