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Bees versus murder hornets

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A person dressed in an orange beekeeper suit holding a beehive frame with bees flying around it.

Teams of volunteers are currently hunting Asian hornets that land on British soil, but their detection is just the tip of the iceberg, says Elmes. The real challenge is tracking the hornet to its nest to destroy the colony. “If something can be automated and help us, it will save time,” he says. This is the rationale behind Pollenize’s latest project: a network of bait stations with AI cameras that can detect and track Asian hornets.

“All it takes is a southeasterly breeze for the hornets to cross the water,” says Alastair Christie, an invasive species expert from Jersey in the Channel Islands. “Queens can hibernate at the bottom of a platform and in all sorts of nooks and crannies, or get stuck in someone’s car or horse stall.” A nest may start out innocuously, like two cells in a garden shed in April. In September it can grow larger than a garbage can and house around 2,500 hornets.

Beekeeper Shelley Glasspool tends to a hive on the roof of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth.Photography: Chris Parkes

Asian hornets are “opportunistic feeders” and eat everything from bees and blueflies to fishing bait and barbecue food. Their mere presence weakens native bees by causing “foraging paralysis.” “Bees become defensive when hornets are attacking their home,” says Christie. “If you’re in a castle under attack, you go into a siege mentality.” The bees will stop cleaning their hive and collecting nectar and water until the colony collapses.

In Jersey, which is on the front line of the invasion, Christie has been leading the fight. There is a public awareness campaign: people are asked to send photographs of suspected hornets, which are distinguished by their orange faces, yellow-tipped legs and large size. Braver volunteers have begun building bait stations: a shallow dish of dark beer or sugar water. If an Asian hornet lands, volunteers attach tinsel streamers to its back to monitor its flight path and track it to its nest. They use a rule of thumb: Every minute an Asian hornet spends away from a bait station between feeding visits translates into 100 meters of distance between the bait station and the nest.

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