Global warming has largely been blamed for the survival and spread of the Asian Hornet, Vespa velutina, which is thought to have arrived in France from the Far East in a consignment of Chinese pottery in late 2004. Thousands of football-shaped hornet nests are now dotted all over the forests of Aquitaine, the south-western region of France hugely popular with British tourists.
"Their spread across French territory has been like lightning," said Jean Haxaire, the entomologist who originally identified the new arrival. He said he had recently seen 85 nests in the 40-odd miles which separate the towns of Marmande and Podensac, in the Lot et Garonne department where the hornets were first spotted.
The hornets can grow to up to 1.8in and, with a wingspan of 3in, are renowned for inflicting a bite which has been compared to a hot nail entering the body. A handful can destroy a nest of 30,000 bees in just a couple of hours — a major concern among the beekeeping industry.
"The problems are not necessarily public health ones, but ecological ones. These hornets can cause immense damage to beehives," said Mr Haxaire. The hornets are renowned for feeding their young with the larvae of other social insects, including bees, whose nests they break into and ransack. The French beekeeping industry has already been decimated by pesticides and long, hot summers. Honey production from the 1.3 million hives run by 80,000 beekeepers has been decreasing annually — down by 60 per cent in south-western France during the past decade.
A spokesman for the French National Been Surveillance Unit said the bee death rate during winter was now up to six in ten. As a result France has to import some 25,000 tons of honey annually. "The arrival of these hornets has made the situation considerably worse," the spokesman added. "The future of our entire industry is at stake."
Yesterday, there was concern that it may not take long before the Asian hornet makes its way to Britain. "There's no doubt that these hornets are heading north and will probably find their way to Britain at some point," said Stuart Hine, manager of the Insect Information Service at London's Natural History Museum. "Climate change certainly means they can cope with European summers. However, they would still have difficulty coping with our winter frosts."
While some 40 people a year die from hornet stings — mainly because of allergic reactions — Claire Villement, of France's Natural History Museum, said there was no need for a "national panic about killer wasps".
Mrs Villement said: "The legend that three bites from a hornet can kill you are totally false. People can still enjoy their picnics in the countryside."
Honey bees in England are already under threat from colony-collapse disorder, and this latest threat is not at all welcome. We have noticed in the last few years that we now have more wasps than honey bees fertilising our Cannas. Wasps are unpleasant creatures, and I much prefer sharing our Cannas with the honey-bee than with them.