If you hear buzzing in your home, it might not just be an ordinary native bee or wasp, it could be an Asian hornet, aka vespa velutina.
Contrary to recent media reports, the Asian hornet which could appear on our shores is no more dangerous than our native hornet.
It has been confused in some reports with the Asian giant hornet, which is much bigger and more aggressive, but has never been seen in Europe.
However, the smaller Asian hornet's spread is being closely monitored because it preys on bees. As Britain's bee population has fallen by a third since 2007, there are concerns that Asian hornet attacks could further reduce our bee population.
And we need bees because, as well as providing honey, they pollinate the flowering crops that are a vital part of our diet.
Dr Gavin Broad, a senior curator of hymenoptera at the Natural History Museum, says: “There is a possibility of the Asian hornet arriving in Britain. It has spread rather rapidly in France and reached some islands that would require no greater sea crossing than the straits of Dover.
“The reason the spread of the Asian hornet is being closely monitored is not because it's particularly dangerous to human health, but because it's a specialised predator of honey bees. There is therefore the potential for the Asian hornet to be another factor adversely affecting honey bee hives.”
Not a giant
Dr Broad says Asian hornets are noticeably smaller and darker than our native hornet (vespa crabro).
“It has frequently been confused with the Giant hornet (vespa mandarinia), which has not reached Europe and is very unlikely to,” he explains.
Asian hornets, which have spread rapidly through France after first being recorded there in 2005, are thought to have arrived in Bordeaux in a consignment of pottery from China in 2004.
They aren't notably aggressive towards humans and while their sting is painful, it's probably not as painful as one from a native hornet, says Dr Broad.
But like other stings, if you suffer from anaphylactic shock following a wasp sting, you'll need urgent medical treatment.
Dr Broad stresses: “Asian hornets aren't particularly dangerous, no more dangerous than our native hornet, which is rather common and widespread in southern England.”
However, you still wouldn't want to get stung by an Asian hornet, so keep away from nests if you see them.
The nests are usually in trees, but the hornets do sometimes nest in sheds and garages. They rarely nest in wall cavities, unlike the common wasp.
If you think you've seen an Asian hornet nest, then contact the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). Defra will verify that it's vespa velutina and destroy the nest.
Potential Asian hornet sightings should also be submitted to the Bees, Wasps and Ants Recording Society.
Asian hornet facts
- The Asian hornet (vespa velutina) can be distinguished from European hornets because it has a velvety dark brown or black abdomen with one yellow/orange segment, and yellow ends to its legs. It has a black head with a yellow face.
- Asian hornets are slightly smaller than the native European hornet, with queens up to 30mm, and workers up to 25mm in length.
- It's a day-flying species and, unlike the European hornet, isn't active at or after dusk.
- It's usually seen between April and November, and is particularly active in August and September.
- Like other wasps, the colonies last one season and only the fertilised queens hibernate.