It may be here already. It could happen next week or next month, but there is a fair chance that the Irish bee population will eventually come under threat from a deadly foe with origins in the Far East, writes Gary Moran.

The Asian hornet (vespa velutina) has already had a hugely negative impact on bee populations - vital to biodiversity and critical for pollination of crops - in parts of Europe. It reached Britain four summers ago. 

It has also been confirmed that the even deadlier Asian giant hornet (vespa mandarinia) made its way to the US late last year and there was an as yet unconfirmed sighting in Spain this spring.

The giant hornet is nicknamed 'murder hornet' for the so-called 'slaughter phase' in which a group numbering less than 30 can attack and kill nearly all of the adult worker bees in a colony.

In the space of just a few hours a strong, healthy colony of 30,000 bees will be literally decapitated by the hornets using their powerful mandibles. The so-called murderers then carry off the thorax of their dead prey to feed their young.

What's worrying from an Irish point of view is that the Asian hornet may not be far away and the giant hornet could follow, according to Paul O'Brien who is President of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations (FIBKA).

"If the Asian hornet hits, it will be like foot and mouth for us. It will be a real tragedy. And if the giant hornet arrives, it will be that to the power of ten," says Mr O’Brien.

It's only a matter of time... an Asian hornet nest

In Europe, it is thought that the first Asian hornet queens arrived in a consignment of Chinese pottery into the Lot-et-Garonne region of southwest France.

They spread to neighbouring countries relatively quickly before hopping the channel with the first confirmed case in Britain coming when worker hornets were seen foraging at an apiary in Gloucestershire in 2016.

"It is an issue because of global climate change. There’s no doubt about that," says O’Brien. "Insects are moving up along the latitudes all through Europe. They have come up to the south of Wales now, so that latitude would be the same as ourselves. 

"I would expect that they are in Ireland but they haven't been observed but I'd say it’s only a matter of time, one to three years I’d say they’ll be here.

"It’s mainly humans that would bring them in without knowing it in baggage, packages, cars, vans, roof racks. They just come in. They get caught going into the ferry and suddenly they’re here."

"Asian hornets pose a threat to humans too with the venom from the sting potentially causing anaphylactic shock"

The hornets eat a variety of insects but there is nothing they like more than a European bee and, while they do not mimic the 'slaughter phase’ of the giant hornets, they can be devastating once they locate a hive. 

Already faced with loss of natural habitat, pesticides and other pathogens, bees are having a tough time. Even without the possibility of Asian hornets, some estimates were predicting that a third of the approximate ninety species of bees in Ireland would be extinct by 2030.

"All the beekeepers in Ireland are fully aware of them (Asian hornets)," says O’Brien. "They’ve been briefed on what they look like. It has been on our training syllabus for over five years. We’ve had lectures on it and we are in touch with our UK and French counterparts."

Methods for eliminating Asian hornets include bait trapping and nest elimination, but once they are established it is almost impossible to eradicate them. Tens of millions of euro is spent every year on trying to reduce the numbers in France, Spain, UK and elsewhere.

So what should an Irish beekeeper or knowledgeable citizen do if they think that they have seen an Asian hornet?

On the assumption that it is alive and can’t easily be captured, the ideal thing would be to take a photograph and make sure that it gets sent to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).

Dr Mary Coffey has a PhD in pollen analysis, became lead researcher in the National Apiculture programme in 2003, worked with Teagasc for many years and at the start of this year was appointed assistant agricultural inspector at DAFM. She knows bees.

 "The Asian hornet has arrived and successfully reproduced in the UK and there is nothing in their life cycle to suggest that it can't reproduce in Ireland," says Dr Coffey. "It is being monitored by the department and there are special hives at the ports and airports and the department is monitoring that."

Beekeeping is increasingly popular in Ireland

So-called sentinel hives can be closely observed in the hope of getting an early warning that an unwanted visitor has arrived. DAFM is working with the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and other agencies in the north and south to develop an all-Ireland approach to tackling Asian hornet, should it arrive here.

"DAFM would deal with publicising it once it's confirmed. You don't want to create a fear," addsDr Coffey. "If it was verified, the department would deal with it at the level appropriate."

It should not be forgotten that Asian hornets pose a threat to humans too with the venom from the sting potentially causing anaphylactic shock and even death. 

Worrying as that may be, the Asian giant hornet is considerably worse. 

"It is not only the largest hornet in the world, it is extremely dangerous," says Sven-Erik Spichiger, managing entomologist at the Washington State Agriculture Department.

Mr Spichiger is at the forefront of efforts to eliminate the hornets after two confirmed cases in the northern part of the state in the last six months.

Similar to Europe, the giant hornets probably reached Washington on ships coming from Asia. "When you first encounter it in person, it looks like a toy," says Mr Spichiger.

"It’s a freakishly large hornet with a massive yellow-orange head which is disproportionately large compared to the body.

"There is nothing else running around out there that looks like this. We do have similar species but nothing quite this menacing.

"It is responsible for 20 to 40 deaths in Japan every year and that’s just from interactions with it when somebody stumbles on to a nest and gets stung.

"In China, in 2013, conditions were pretty bad for these. There were 43 fatalities in just one small part of China." 

Mr Spichiger added: "The venom causes necrosis around the sting site meaning that the flesh around a sting starts melting. If you get multiple stings the melting flesh starts to get into your bloodstream and starts having negative impacts on your organs like your kidneys and your liver.

"Even if you do survive, you could end up on dialysis or something even worse."

Thankfully, the Asian giant hornet remains a relatively distant foe which is somewhat comforting for Irish beekeepers and for retailer Paul O'Sullivan.

Put off by competing with major chains, he switched from selling televisions to selling beekeeping equipment well over a decade ago and has a retail outlet in Sandyford, Dublin. 

"There's been such a surge in the last five years with people getting back to nature and all that kind of stuff. Beekeeping is kind of a natural progression," says Mr O'Sullivan.

"There's about 4,500 beekeepers in the country, mainly hobbyists with a small number of hives and four or five bigger ones with a couple of hundred hives each. It's fun and you get to meet a fantastic array of people."

Paul O'Brien of FIBKA is confident that the surge will continue. "It is growing and we're trying to encourage the younger members so we're encouraging young scientist competitions to look at pollination and bees. 

"We have got into the universities and are encouraging third level students to look at areas of bee research and we've had that. As of 2021, with the co-operation of the National University of Ireland we have our first Diploma Level 7 course in Galway."

One can but hope that research can come up with more effective ways of repelling or eliminating Asian hornets from these shores.

The phrase 'buzz off' may be indicative of dismissing bees as a nuisance but for many reasons we really need them around.

Click here to read more on the All-Ireland pollinator plan.