Tag Archives: Scotland

Extrapolating Asian Hornets

Extrapolation in mathematical terms means “the extension of a graph, curve, or range of values by inferring unknown values from trends in the known data”. There’s a rather poor scientific joke which involves ‘extrapolating the line’ from a single data point.

Here’s the same joke from the incomparable xkcd.com

Extrapolating (with thanks to xkcd.com)

… which brings us neatly to the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina). This invasive species predates honey bees and other pollinators and is a threat to beekeeping for two reasons:

  • by killing honey bees (which comprise > 50% of the diet) it can destroy colonies
  • by hunting at hive entrances it prevents bees from foraging, so reducing honey yields
Vespa velutina

Vespa velutina …

As many will be aware, at those who members of a beekeeping association or internet-savvy, an Asian hornet nest was discovered in Tetbury, near Bristol, in September 2016. Although the nest was destroyed (and other nests were not found) there remains the concern that the Asian hornet may be established here. If that’s the case, or if when it arrives again, how far and how fast will it spread in the UK?

A recent publication by Matt Keeling and colleagues has attempted to to address this. You’ll appreciate the relevance of the cartoon above … August 2016, no hornet nests, September 2016, one hornet nest. How many can we expect in the future?

A long way from home

Asian hornet distribution ...

Asian hornet distribution …

Unsurprisingly (the clue is in the name) the Asian hornet comes from Asia. The native distribution includes tropical South East Asia where it exists in a number of different colour morphs or sub-species. However, it spreads – naturally on its own and with the inadvertent help of man – and is now established in Korea, Japan and North West Europe.

The Asian Hornet appeared in South West France in 2004. It was thought that overwintering queens were imported with a shipment of pottery from China (it is the V. velutina nigrithorax subspecies – see map for native distribution). Since 2004 the Asian hornet has spread widely across France, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and Italy. You can view a dynamic Google map showing location and time of detection here.

It’s a short hop across the Channel from Northern France for an insect that flies strongly and disperses widely, so there was every expectation that the Asian hornet would appear in the UK in due course. Remember that bluetongue virus of sheep was introduced to the UK in 2006 by tiny Culicoides midges wafted across the Channel on the prevailing South Easterly winds.

Brexit or not, the Asian hornet can easily get to Southern England.

Closer to home

Asian hornets were first found in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, in September 2016 and subsequently in North Somerset. A nest was found in Tetbury and destroyed. Haplotype analysis demonstrated that, unsurprisingly, the hornets were related to those in Northern France. Worryingly, this analysis also demonstrated that the hornets were related, but no closer than at the grandparent level.

This suggests one of two scenarios. Either there were two separate incursions from France by hornets that were closely related or the Asian hornet was established in the UK before 2016 and the Somerset and Gloucestershire finds represent progeny (two generations later) of this initial invasion.

There have been no further reported Asian hornet finds on the mainland (as of early August 2017 and remembering that absence of evidence doesn’t mean evidence of absence) though additional nests have been found on Jersey and it’s possible that the hornet is established in the Channel Islands.

How far, how fast?

Whether or not the Tetbury hornet incursion has been contained there remains the question about how far and fast will the Asian hornet spread in the UK.

This is the sort of thing that can be modelled by epidemiologists. Taking account of a variety of factors such as the numbers of queens produced per nest, the environmental suitability for the hornet, the dispersal distances and – importantly for a species originating in tropical regions – the latitude (and hence temperature).

Much of the real numbers for these various factors come from studies of the spread of the Asian hornet in France. For example, the mean dispersal distance of new queens is about 18 miles i.e. Tetbury to central London in about 5 generations.

Predicted spread of the Asian hornet in UK …

In the figure above A-D are the early years (<5), E and F are the predictions for 10 and 20 years hence. Remember, this is an inexact science as the predictions are being made from a very small founder population. G shows the confidence limits which, at 90% (the palest shading) are very broad.

Is Scotland safe?

As a beekeeper in Scotland the potential to spread North is a concern … those of you living further South can simply jump ahead to the conclusions.

A key feature of the prediction Keeling and colleagues made was that increasing latitudes (and possibly altitude going by the pale shading of North Wales and the Pennines, though this could also be lack of suitable nesting environments – the Asian hornet prefers oak trees apparently) will restrict breeding success and hence spread due to reduced temperatures.

They modelled this by assuming reproductive success/spread (actually queens/nest) was 100% in Andernos-les-Bains, France (where much of the data used for the modelling was derived) and 0% in the North of England. This mirrors the situation for the European hornet which is much less common in Northern England. Assuming a linear decrease in queens per nest over this distance they reproductive success in Tetbury is only 38% that in Andernos-les-Bains. 

With these assumptions, Scotland is safe. I should add that I’m talking about natural distribution and spread. A single Asian hornet was discovered at a “retail warehouse in the central belt of Scotland” in March 2017. Although there’s no further official news about this discovery it seems likely it was imported ‘on the back of a lorry’ (and the SASA/NBU people will be able to tell where from after genetic analysis) to one of the giant distribution warehouses in Motherwell or Livingston. If the assumptions made about reproductive success at increasing latitudes are correct, this type of introduction is unlikely to result in the Asian hornet getting established in Scotland.

All of the modelling discussed so far assumes no intervention by FERA or by protective and vigilant beekeepers. The impact of nest destruction will be discussed in the future … but don’t get your hopes up 😉


Asian hornet nest

Asian hornet nest …

With only one (or two?) incursions and no further reports in 2017 it’s possible that the Asian hornet is yet to become established in mainland UK. Once here – and I think it’s pretty certain it will get here and become established – the speed with which it spreads may look like the model proposed here. If the underlying assumptions on reproductive success, dispersal distance etc. are representative of the situation in the UK then – without effective intervention – we can expect it to be widespread within a couple of decades.

However, a feature of all epidemiological modelling is that they are subject to revision and reinterpretation … inevitably leading to further publications.


STOP PRESS and related …

Asian hornet isolation confirmed in Woolacombe, North Devon, late September 2017

Full analysis of 2016 isolates published in PLoS One. Budge GE, Hodgetts J, Jones EP, Ostojá-Starzewski JC, Hall J, Tomkies V, et al. (2017) The invasion, provenance and diversity of Vespa velutina Lepeletier (Hymenoptera: Vespidae) in Great Britain. PLoS ONE 12: e0185172. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185172

† Don’t mistake the Asian or Yellow-legged hornet (Vespa velutina) with the Asian giant hornet (Vespa bloodyenormousandterrifying). The latter has a wingspan of 7.5cm and its proper scientific name is Vespa mandarinia. A number of newspaper articles in autumn 2016 made this mistake. Many also chose to use images of the European hornet (Vespa crabro) or other large stingy-looking insects … none of which are likely to help the public correctly identify the invasive Asian hornet.

Vespa mandarinia

Vespa mandarinia …

Helensburgh & District BKA talk

DWV symptoms

DWV symptoms

I’m very pleased to be speaking on the 24th of November (this Thursday) to members of the Helensburgh and District BKA. The talk will be at the rather splendid looking Rhu Parish Church at 7.15pm. The title of the talk is “Bees, viruses and Varroa: the biology and control of deformed wing virus (DWV)”. I’ll discuss aspects of the biology of DWV, particularly relating to its transmission by Varroa, and will then explore potential ways in which bees could be ‘protected’ using either high-tech or low-tech approaches. If you’re attending please introduce yourself when we’re all having a cuppa at the end of the evening … don’t leave it too late though, I’ve got a 2 hour drive home afterwards.


The drive from the east coast to Helensburgh was stunning, with a fantastic pink-tinged sunset lighting up the snow-covered hills around Crainlarich (Stuc a’ Chroin, Ben Vorlich and Ben Ledi). It was bitterly cold and clear.

Stuc a' Chroin and Ben Vorlich ...

Stuc a’ Chroin and Ben Vorlich …

There was a slight delay due to an absentee projector. During this we discussed oxalic acid-containing treatments for Varroa control and the problems caused by the lack of a ready-mixed preparation of Api-Bioxal. Once the projector arrived we were up and running and I covered viruses and Varroa, why we treat when we treat (or perhaps more correctly ‘when should we treat for maximum effect?’) and the influence of drifting and robbing on parasite and pathogen transmission between colonies. That’s quite a lot to get through in an hour … and I didn’t. The audience were rewarded for their patience with a well-earned cup of tea and a question and answer session.

The return trip was less visually pleasing other than a great view of a barn owl ghosting along the verges of the A977 near Rumbling Bridge. With thanks to Cameron Macallum and colleagues for their hospitality and a very enjoyable evening.

The year in prospect

Pollen boost ...

Pollen boost …

Usually by this time of the year I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the season will unroll. I’ll know how many colonies are looking strong coming out of the winter. I’ll be planning to boost the colonies (usually about now) that are closest to the oil seed rape with thin syrup and pollen to maximise the colony build up and honey yield. Finally, I’ll have an idea of how many colonies I’ll be selling off (usually as nucs) and so need to replace during the course of the coming season. The vagaries of the weather will slow things down or speed things up, but broadly things can be expected to proceed much as they’ve done over the last few years.

Go West North young man

Room for a couple more

Room for a couple more

But 2015 is going to be very different as I’m moving to Fife in Scotland. In addition to the usual house selling, house buying, new job, removals etc. I’ll be moving all of my beekeeping activities in about the middle of the season to a small village about 20 miles from St. Andrews. This has necessitated a major rethink of the beekeeping year, with the emphasis on having the majority of my colonies ready to move in late July.

I’m still at the planning stage but am currently intending to do some or all of the following:

  • accept that the year is likely to be a write-off as far as the main season honey crop is concerned … the last thing I want to do is to be moving colonies piled high with half filled supers.
  • review colony behaviour and performance early in the season – health, temper, strength etc. with the intention of only keeping the best. With no need to generate honey I should be able to concentrate on stock improvement.
  • start queen rearing from the best colonies as soon as possible, culling the really unsuitable queens, giving away those that are passable and splitting the colonies hard to make up nucs.
  • if bees are in short supply for queen rearing try and capture a few swarms in bait hives, replacing the swarmy (by definition) queens with home reared ones. Actually, I’ll be doing this anyway … there’s something wonderful about bees just arriving and setting up home in an empty box you’ve set out for them 🙂
  • aim to generate sufficient 5-8 frame nucs (the latter in butchered Paynes boxes), the rest in a motley collection of cedar, plywood and poly nuc boxes. I’m not really sure yet what ‘sufficient’ is …
  • get nucs well established by mid/late June so they can be checked over by the regional bee inspector before moving them to Scotland.
  • fill a Transit van with nucs and drive up the M6.

The intention is to move nucs in time for them to be well established, putting the very strong ones into full hives before the season ends, with the rest being overwintered for 2016.

How many is sufficient?

Overwintering Everynuc

Overwintering Everynuc

I usually have 8-12 production colonies, depending upon the time of the season, the amount of queen rearing I’ve done and the number of swarms that have generously been contributed by neighbouring beekeepers. However, I also need bees for my day job and need to significantly expand my work apiary. So ‘sufficient’ is probably somewhere between 12 and 24 nucs, the upper number possibly defined by the amount I can readily (and safely) accommodate in a van to move north.

Moving bees

I’ve transported nucs from Scottish islands to the Midlands before now, so the move back north shouldn’t be a problem. With a suitable travel screen (most of which I’ll have to build this spring), a van and a cool night it’s a straightforward procedure. It’s certainly a lot less backbreaking than moving full colonies, particularly when they’re piled high with supers. I wouldn’t make the journey in really hot weather or when there might be heavy traffic – although you can spray colonies with water through the travel screen, the high temperatures that occur due to lack of airflow need to be avoided to prevent over-stressing the bees.

It’s always a reassuring sight to manhandle the nucs into the new apiary in the early dawn of a summers day and seeing the first few bees exploring their new environment.

Alternative approaches

An alternative to all this would be to leave full colonies here until the end of the season, then return to collect them. By July the swarming season is pretty-much over so they are reasonably self-contained. With clipped queens and sufficient supers it should be possible to leave the bees to get on with things while I move, returning to collect them in early/mid September. However, the workload in doing this is considerable … 12+ full colonies, 36-48 (hopefully) full supers and a large number of robust hive stands. The prospect of securing a dozen or more colonies for transport together with supers containing perhaps hundreds of pounds of honey is a bit worrying. I realise this is second nature to many who practice migratory beekeeping, but they’re presumably set up with the necessary trailers, straps and experience … most of which I lack.

5 frame nuc colony

5 frame nuc colony …

There may yet be other options … whatever, it promises to be a very different beekeeping season.