Environmental

Beekeepers brace for next round with Canada’s ‘murder hornets’

British Columbia resigned to a ‘long fight’ after 2020’s efforts to track and kill the invasive insects ended in frustration

The year 2020 is not one that beekeepers in Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia are likely to forget in a hurry. Since the spring, experts in both regions have been gripped by fears of Vespa mandarinia, a hulking insect whose voracious appetite for honeybees and stealthy spread could pose a threat to the region’s vulnerable ecosystem.

While the eradication of an Asian giant hornet nest in Washington in October was a success, officials to the north in Canada have dealt with a number of setbacks in their own bid to eradicate the hornets.

This summer, British Columbia’s chief beekeeper Dr Paul van Westendorp and his team deployed bottle traps, streamers and radio transmitters in the hope of killing the invasive insects – or leading researchers to underground nests. But they came away empty-handed.

The trouble is, the Asian giant hornet, despite its size, is incredibly difficult to locate, given its tendency to stick to forested areas. Unless a member of the public spots one by chance, there is little officials can do to find them.

British Columbia officials know they have lost any chance of locating the nests for now. Winter means that mated queens will have left their nests and gone into hiding. Few will survive, but those that do will have the chance to create their own nests.

This is not just a worry for the province’s beekeepers. The Asian giant hornet is a threat to far more than just honeybees. Vespa mandarina is an opportunistic predator, meaning it also feasts on local insects like grasshoppers and even the yellow jackets hornet, none of which have a defence against its stinger, mandibles and venom.

One glimmer of hope for entomologists is that the hornets and their colonies lack genetic diversity, a key trait needed for surviving new and often hostile environments.

“A lack of genetic diversity is a big problem for a species that disperses to new regions that they have not previously experienced before,” McAfee says. “It’s not actually 100% clear that they’re here to stay.”

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