Monday, September 13, 2010

A threat from without

Any kind of hornet problem in France, and almost anyone starts worrying about whether they're Asian hornets.  

There's a species of hornet, a small and unremarkable looking one, called vespa velutina, which was accidentally introduced  into south west France from China in 2004 in a shipment of Chinese pottery.  Since then they've colonised the Aquitaine region and seem to be spreading, Lesley at Peregrinations, who lives in that neck of the woods, remarked on seeing a lot of them this summer, and caught a goodly number in a classic jam trap.

They are a problem.  They like sugar more than European hornets do, though, hence the success of Lesley's jam trap, and hence their success in that region of France: they especially like the prune orchards. ( Vespa crabro will occasionally eat ripe fruit on the tree, but doesn't like anything rotten, fermenting or of human manufacture, so they will not annoy you on picnics or dive into your drink and allow you to try to swallow them.)  So they are more drawn to human habitation.  They are more adaptable about their nest sites, so will settle closer to us, wherein lies another part of the problem, which is that really, most hornets, even the nastiest, will only really attack us if we are too close to their nests.  A new commenter here recently reported getting 20 stings from some hornets when he inadvertently got too close to one - happily he is clearly alive to tell the tale so disproving the urban myth that three stings can kill a man, nevertheless, it's not a position you want to be in. The jury still seems to be out on whether the Asian hornet's sting is more painful than that of a European one; or if they are more defensive and inclined to attack people. 

The other unpleasant thing they do is prey on honeybees.  Most hornets do to some extent, along with other insects, but the Asian velutina, is a bit more single-minded about it, and stalks hives and attacks the bees as they come and go, carrying them off to feed their young.  Once this gets habitual they can do serious damage to a beehive.  Poor old honeybees have enough to put up with, what with pesticides and varroa mites and sundry other slings and arrows reducing their numbers, so this is bad news, for bees, beekeepers and the rest of us, who depend on them for pollination of food crops, as everyone knows. Asian honeybees apparently have strategies for fighting back, but European ones haven't got developed these. Additionally, they may compete with the indigenous crabros, perhaps making them more aggressive and/or driving them out.

So, indeed, Asian vespa velutina hornets, who shouldn't really be here, are a genuine problem.  Globalisation, stuff being shipped all over the world in large and unregulated quantities, unprecedented movements of people and goods, another consequence of this. It's not the hornets' fault, but that's not to make light of the matter.

There is however, another kind of Asian hornet which has gained notoriety, through articles in the National Geographic and elsewhere, and television programmes.  This is the Asian giant hornet, vespa mandarinia.  These are truly scary enormous brutes.  They are the ones the aforementioned Dr Ono has made it his mission to study and has come to admire, even though it has involved being stung which felt like a hot nail driven into his leg.  They live mostly in mountainous regions of Japan, where doughty mountain folk sometimes consider them a delicacy and go to some risk to procure them as such, I suppose rather in the same risk-spiced spirit in which fugu fish is eaten.  These are serious predators of honeybees, they attack, invade and lay waste to the hive, tearing the bees to bits at a rapid rate and also pillaging the honey, leaving scenes of carnage behind them.  There are plenty of video nasties of these scenes available on the web, there's one here at the National Geographic site.  Asian bees and beekeepers have developed strategies to fight against these attacks, but they are fairly horrific.

BUT, these are not the velutina Asian hornets which have established themselves in France - and which may, it is conceivable, eventually make their way across the channel.  Site after site of reputable information, those of beekeepers' and their association, the Natural History Museum, etc etc, reiterate this fact.  

Yet, another article which is frequently linked to, from Wikipedia and elsewhere, is this one from the Daily Telegraph last year, which mingles facts about the two species, - including the frequent reference to the hot nail through the leg - to give the impression that  terrifying and monstrous insects have already invaded France, terrorising hapless tourists (you'd really better not go there...) and laying waste to their honey bee populations, and will very shortly be making their way across the English Channel.  

I know, it's all just silly season stuff, and most people would really rather be momentarily sensationalised that learn boring scientific facts, but I really feel it's insidious and disingenuous, however seemingly unimportant. Disingenuous because it's done in such a way that the misreporting is not so glaringly obvious that anyone would pick it up, unlike in another article in the Mail Online, where the inconsistencies are so blatant that they are immediately questioned in the comments.

Why is it permissable to warp, distort and lie about the natural world to an extent which wouldn't be acceptable in any other area?  And why are they doing it? Fairly obviously to reinforce the idea that Out There, beyond the safe and cosy confines of Telegraph-reading Little England, are vile, alien murderous elements, and spineless, hapless Europe is grovellingly capitulating to them. 

If you don't believe me, or think I'm reading too much into it, have a look at the comments thread, where these kind of glib and fatuous parallels are being made very easily.  A euro for every drearily unfunny jibe about the French surrendering would buy me a lot of jars of Marmite, and that's just the beginning of it.   Happily for my sanity and sense of personal moral cleanliness, I didn't read them all, but of 139 comments I didn't see many even directly dealing with the actual subject of the hornets, compared with the amount of snarking about immigration, Europe and climate change denial.  There are one or two saner voices there too, though I can't imagine why they're bothering.    

So don't spend too long there, but rather check out some of the beekeeper's sites, where intelligent and informed people are  trying to address the real problem.         

Ah me, my rants are very tame.  I think this particular personal silly season topic may be drawing to a close very soon.  The hornets, the good old-fashioned, home-grown vespa crabros, are tapping at the French doors, time to turn off the lights and go to bed.


Kelly said...

I have a feeling that the warping and distorting of issues that is a trend these days is not just limited the natural world. Being election season here in the US a person would be hard pressed to find 2 consecutive lines of truth in the same bit of media. Thanks for the fun series on hornets, you have provided about the most information on hornets that I could handle with the stinging politics going on here.

marja-leena said...

Fascinating - I've learned so much, thanks Lucy for all your hard work. I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the insect world is the most powerful and outnumbers us humans, and may out-survive us.

christopher said...

This is the very shortcoming in the human spirit that requires my tears and tears at my already broken heart.

Roderick Robinson said...

I like the way this post slides from dispassionate academicianship (It won't do, that word, will it? But I'm too exhausted to go back and tinker.) into what you call a rant but I would call - more or less - forensic dissection. Or is it shooting fish in a battle? To accuse the truly hideous Daily Mail of being economical with the veritas is like calling George Osborne lovable. But I'm losing my thread... Here's an interpolation: there can be no better example of great marketing branding than designing an Italian scooter and calling it a Vespa. No, I'm still not on track. Disingenuous: constantly I yearn to use that word but fear misspelling it and thereby looking ridiculous. I mention it here because you've already used it; if you've got it wrong then I don't mind because I'm in good - nay, the best - company. Try wasp stings. One stung me within the year and I realised that the last occasion was in my youth and the memory was over-freighted with pain. Bit worried about freighted. Nice of you, given your evolved provenance, to refer to it as the English Channel but then you may be quoting the DT or the hideous DM. THERE IS NO WAY OUT OF THIS! I started out wanting to decorate your post with balls of Glitterwax (Remember that one? Nah, you're too young.) and it's all got out of hand. Call in Dr Plutarch and have it straightened out. Qui garde les rédacteurs? I'll tell you what, stream-of-consciousness is far harder than I ever imagined.

Lucy said...

Thank you all four for sticking with this, clearly if there's one way to put off all but one's staunchest blog readers it's to keep going on about ugly venomous insects!

BB - I love your stream of consciousness. In fact Google Chrome has a built-in spell checker, a thing I have always eschewed but which is surprisingly useful, in part but not exclusively because titchy little keyboard occasions lots of typos. My spelling is OK - better than Plutarch's anyway! - but -ent/-ant suffixes give me problems, not least of which is a gloating husband with spot-on orthographic skills who takes great satisfaction in correcting them. Aslo it's quite amusing the words the Google spell checker doesn't recognise and pedantically underlines with a red wiggly line, among them here for example: titchy, Plutarch and Google.

I was quite surprised that although the Daily Mail article was far more sensational, incorrect and misleading, I found the comments to it somewhat less repellent than those on the DT one. They seemed more inclined to pick up on the blatant inaccuracies or to express genuine concern for the bees, and tended less to use fatuous, facetious and bigoted irrelevances to make out how clever they thought they were. Truth is, I lead a pretty sheltered on-line life and don't spend a lot of time in such places, I'm always shocked by the level of unpleasantness and stupidity about when I do.

Bee said...

I've referenced you on hornets before . . . you are my hornet expert! We had a rather large nest of them under the barn eaves this summer, and even though my husband and I are laissez-faire (to say the least), the farmer next door begged us to have it removed. A suited and helmeted specialist came along to poison the nest -- the work of a minute. I have no idea as to their type, but they seemed VERY large.

Thank you for your description of the HORNET MENACE from the English press. I will be satisfied with your précis, I think. :)

Lucy said...

Thanks Bee dear. I think if they'd been that close I wouldn't have waited for the farmer to ask! glad they were got rid of easily.

I get the impression the on-line newspapers have less sense of editorial responsibility even than the print ones.

I note the Google spell checker missed 'aslo' in my above comment, or else I missed the correction!

HKatz said...

The hornets in that photo do sort of look like alien invaders, scoping out the landscape and figuring out where they'll next land...

the polish chick said...

"most people would really rather be momentarily sensationalised that learn boring scientific facts" that, right there, is what ails the world.

i used to read the comments on the cbc (canada broadcasting corporation) news site, but they made me afraid of the people who populate my country, so i stopped.