UK research project with a sting in its tail

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Anyone spotting an old British Army ambulance being driven around the Island for the last three weeks would have probably assumed it belonged to a member of the Jersey Military Vehicle Club.

Such an assumption could not have been further from the truth. The ambulance belongs to Exeter University and it is a crucial element in the battle against the Asian hornet, which is rapidly establishing itself in the Island.

The university’s environment department, which is based at its Penryn campus in Cornwall, has converted the vehicle into a mobile laboratory which is being used to test new tracking technology to locate the invasive insect’s nests.

Dr Peter Kennedy, research fellow in pollinator ecosystem services at the University of Exeter, is part of a group headed by Professor Juliet Osborne that specialises in looking at how insects and plants interact within the environment and their role in the provision of ecosystem services.

Their work has been funded by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs to prepare for future outbreaks of the Asian hornet in the UK. Beekeepers from England’s south-west and the Island’s Environment Department are also funding the research.

Dr Kennedy and his assistant, Dr Jessica Knapp, have spent the last three weeks working with beekeepers and members of the Environment Department, who are at the forefront of British efforts to contain Asian hornet population explosions until new methods are developed to control an insect that, it appears, is here to stay.

Insects, in particular honey and bumble bees, birds and even bats play an important role in pollination, which is vital to agricultural production. When the UK government realised the threat posed by the Asian hornet, which preys on pollinating insects and has spread throughout western Europe to the Channel Islands in just 14 years, it called in the experts from Exeter University.

‘The British government is worried about the effects the Asian hornet could have here having seen what has happened since it arrived in France, where initially nothing was done to try to control it,’ said Dr Kennedy.

‘But to be fair, the French probably made the assumption that the Asian hornet might not survive in Europe, but we have since seen how quickly it has replicated to spread across western Europe.

‘Defra initially contacted the head of our group at Exeter University, Professor Juliet Osborne, as she has lots of experience in tracking bees and she was also involved in the innovative work using radar technology to track bees, and that was first developed 25 years ago.’

Dr Kennedy is a behavioural ecologist whose main interest is how insect behaviour affects their survival in a diverse and changing environment.

In his professional profile on the university website he says: ‘My research has focussed on beneficial insects, in particular social and pollinating insects, the ecosystem services they provide, and the interaction of multiple factors – whether natural or man-made – on their survival. To this end, I utilise a range of technologies to study the movements and foraging patterns of insects.’

He graduated from Southampton University in 1985 with a BSc in biology and gained a PhD in 1990 at the University of Bristol.

Before researching Asian hornets he studied and reported on the impact of agricultural insecticides (neonicotinoids) on bumblebees and honey bees, and honey bee population dynamics.

Following research Dr Kennedy and associates conducted in France and Jersey last year, Exeter University has devised a system to locate and destroy nests, buying time to control Asian hornet outbreaks and to learn more about them and what effects they may have on the environment and other species.

Their tracking method uses the smallest radio transmitter tags available for insects, bats and birds which are made by UK firm Biotrack Ltd.

Dr Kennedy said the tags contain a tiny battery and a 250 mm long thread-line antenna to attach to hornets, which have to weigh at least 350mg, with sewing thread. Hornets are able to carry them as long as the tag weighs less than 80% of the insect’s weight.

So how do you attach delicate equipment to an insect described by the more scaremongering elements of the media as the greatest threat to mankind?

Very carefully is the obvious answer, and with the urge to run fast in the opposite direction when they are released into the wild.

The reality could not be more different, as Dr Kennedy explained as countryside rangers from the National Trust and Environment attached trackers to live hornets.

‘We place them in a small specimen tube and put that in a box of ice for ten minutes to chill them and make them lethargic,’ he said. ‘This gives us long enough to fix them to a restraining plate and that allows us to fix the tag to them.

‘The hornets will start waking up after about two minutes. We need them to be sedated to be able to fix the tag. We then give them time to recover, usually for ten minutes [in a special net insect cage] and observe them to make sure they can fly with the tag.

‘We put them in a larger cage to make sure they can fly around for ten minutes before we are ready to release them.’

The training has taken place at Howard Davis Farm but when it has come to tracking local hornets the tagging has been carried out in the back of the old army ambulance.

Once the hornets are released, Dr Kennedy said, a hand-held radio telemetry tracker was used to pick up signals emitted every two seconds from the tags on several hornets and then co-ordinated to locate their nests.

More than 30 nests – each capable of housing 6,000 worker hornets and 200 queens, with the capacity to establish new colonies – have been found so far. That equates to 1.5 nests for each of the Island’s 45 square miles in just two years since the first insect sighting was confirmed in early August 2016.

With queens preparing to leave nests to start the process of reproducing next year, the race is on to destroy as many as possible.

A single hornet can kill 50 bees in one day. Apiaries are like a convenience store for them. Instead of using up energy foraging for food they hover outside a hive to grab bees, before dismembering them and taking them back to their nest to feed to larvae.

The Asian hornet only arrived in Marseilles in a shipment of flower pots from China in 2004 and is now endemic throughout France, northern Spain and Portugal and Majorca and it is spreading into Italy, Germany, Belgium, Holland and the British Isles. As a result governments have woken up to the threat it poses to natural eco-systems and the food economies.

So far Jersey is the most affected of the British Isles. The Asian hornet is less well established in the other Channel Islands and so far only three nests – the first in Tetbury in Gloucestershire in October 2016 – and a few individual insects have been found in the UK.

‘If the nest in Tetbury had not been destroyed, in all probability that one nest could have gone on to populate the whole of England within ten to 15 years,’ he said.

Which is why, he added, the university’s research and the work currently being done in Jersey to destroy nests was so important.

‘We will be producing a report for Defra and the Environment Department here on our work over the last three weeks,’ he said. ‘And we have been invited to attend a meeting of the British-Irish Council in Jersey later this month when the Asian hornet will be discussed.’

Until we fully understand the threat posed to the European continent by the invasive insect from Asia, Dr Kennedy says as long as humans don’t bother them, they should not bother us. However, disturb a nest and like any wild animal that feels threatened they will attack.

‘The nest that we found at a hotel in St Brelade’s Bay was in a bush in a garden, with guests close by and people moving around – and it had probably been there since June,’ he said. ‘Nobody was stung and no one even knew it was there until the Jersey beekeepers tracked hornets back to it.’

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