NOTE: Anyone sighting an Asian hornet on the UK mainland must report it to the National Bee Unit at this email: [email protected] and they will decide what action to take. 

Judith Norman, the first volunteer from the mainland to go to help Jersey Beekeepers deal with overwhelming number of calls about Asian Hornets on the island, has written a blog about it: 

20 August 2018

Earlier this month, Diane Roberts sent an email suggesting that beekeepers go to help out in Jersey because the Asian hornets were multiplying at such a rate that local beekeepers were swamped with the workload. At first, I felt awfully noble dashing to their rescue, but I have a confession to make: it turned out to be the most fun I have had in ages. I got thoroughly hooked on the thrill of the chase, as well as the camaraderie of working alongside like-minded people who enjoyed using their wits to overcome every type of obstacle one could imagine. Locating the nests was our only task; as soon as a nest was discovered, the local pest controllers were notified, and we dashed off to work in the next location where hornets had been spotted.

A helpful step forward was viewing the brief footage above of Bob Hogge, who developed the technique, demonstrating how he marks hornets, notes carefully the direction of flight, as far as he can see, and then times their return. From that he works out roughly how far away the nest is, and then moves his bait along in that direction to get a bit closer, until he finds that the return times are under two minutes. He places a further bait station beyond where he thinks the nest could be, and confirms that he now sees them flying back in the opposite direction. 

Marking Hornets

I was worried about the bravado of not wearing a bee suit when I first saw the video. In practice, I didn't wear mine at all during the week. Even though the bait attracted wasps by the hundred, neither they nor the hornets are the least bit interested in being pesky while they are supping on the tasty bait. We used queen catchers (the kind with the sponge plunger) to catch the hornets and mark them with the same markers we use for honeybee queens. We had some stop watches and otherwise used the stopwatch function on our mobile phones, to time the returns. 

My First Experience

Bob Hogge, one of the two most active hornet tracking beekeepers, was on holiday, but invited me to stay with him from Monday. Flights from Exeter were being snapped up under my nose while I searched online, so I stuck out my neck and booked for the following day with a hotel stay for the first two nights. 

Bob was extraordinarily hospitable. He is a, wonderful, lateral thinker and keen on education and put huge effort into making sure that I ( and the other three volunteers who were under his wing) understood as much as possible about hornet habits . He was such an excellent host, even providing home cooked meals of lobster, no less, and a perfect souffle for example that, at times, I worried that he should have been spending more time actively nest hunting! He seemed to be able to juggle an amazing number of balls at once and within a couple of days we felt as though we were becoming 'experts' with good marking skills and passable bait station management. Bob lent us his second car and we got to know the island as we travelled between parishes, helping teams on the ground who needed more bait stations than they could monitor for themselves. 

Bob Hogge and mainland beekeepers plus Dr Peter Kennedy celebrate finding of Handois nest 

We sometimes found the nests ourselves, and in the excitement may have made the mistake briefly of thinking we were getting quite clever, but soon remembered that every time we arrived, local teams had been slogging away patiently moving their bait stations closer and closer, perhaps for days.  So if we found a nest, it was largely due to their having laid the foundation. If they felt miffed that we had wandered in towards the end and cherry-picked, they graciously didn't show it, but made a big fuss with back slapping and posing for photos and generally celebrating.

Hornet Flight Paths

Individual hornets visiting a bait station will have fairly consistent flight paths. These probably won't be in straight lines though. In an open area, they may well fly along a hedge line; in town they may follow open streets! Some may fly straight through a line of trees but others may go all the way around the line of trees. It is easy to see one fly if it has open sky as a background, but  as soon as it passes in front of a tree, for instance, it is no longer visible. Having several people with radios cuts down enormously on the time and leg work. If the person at the bait station gives a shout as the insect takes off, the others further down may just manage to get a glimpse of it as it rounds a corner and one can then decide where to place the next bait station in the bid to get closer to the nest. 

Maps and Access

John de Carteret, a retired forensic photographer, is the other of the two most active hornet tracking beekeepers. He has been working tirelessly for long hours answering calls about sightings in the various areas and travelling out to confirm them. His forte is the documentation of the undertaking which he does mainly by film and still photography.

He also produces impressive A3 maps showing small areas in a large scale, which he prints from Google Pro, so one can see individual trees and gates etc Getting hold of one of John's maps transforms one's task. It makes it easier to plan and deploy team members, and to record flight direction so that one doesn't get muddled with so much information coming in. Even for local beekeepers, who know the area well, John's maps are highly prized and make the work much easier and speed progress. 

We did a fair amount of climbing over gates and wandering through woods, but tried, very diligently, to gain permission from property owners first. On the whole, people were aware of the importance of tracking Asian Hornets, having heard about it on the news. We received warm welcomes from all types of people , and on my first day i was amused that we trudged off from one garden in a council estate carrying some mackerel and three giant cucumbers which we had been given as a reward for our endeavours. We had offers of tea frequently, and had our water bottles filled every couple of hours. I was invited into some palatial homes and gardens and equally welcomed to the top floor of a humble cottage in order to be able to see into a tall tree to check for visible insect activity. Nests are very difficult to spot, and it helps to keep a look out for insect traffic in the tree tops, as an indication of a possible nest. 

Radio Tracking

Two academics from University of Exeter, brought their radio tracking equipment and when we were able to catch big enough hornets, they chilled them to subdue them and glued on a tiny transmitter under the thorax. they followed the transmitter when they released the hornet and hoped to locate the nest when the marked hornet arrived. After a few days they were very successful, but for the first few we felt great satisfaction at finding nests before they did!

The radio tracking certainly has a role, but my impression so far is that they are fairly dependent on our having done the spade work beforehand to narrow down the area for them. If they start tracking too far from the nest, there can be too much ground for them to cover at speed. The hornets fly very fast even with the transmitters attached, and a person clutching what looks like a big TV aerial that needs to be pointed at a fast moving insect, some way off, can only run so fast. They may also be hampered by hedges, busy roads, warehouses and rivers, for example. Once the transmitter has been attached, they may only have the one chance to follow it, because that hornet may get stuck in the nest and may not return to the bait to give them another chance. Each transmitter is a very costly item and finding another hornet and attaching it may take hours and the bills soon mount up if several transmitters need to be used in the course of locating one nest. 

Whilst I had set out to play a role in combatting hornets in Jersey, and I hope I did contribute significantly, I gained far more. I had no concept of the intricacies of successful nest tracking beforehand and was very grateful for the willingness of all team members to spend time sharing their knowledge patiently and explaining carefully to make sure I was going to be able to work efficiently. 

Judith Norman, Torbay Beekeepers Association.