You hear a low hum or a buzzing noise and immediately a sense of terror takes over and sends shivers up your spine. When you see the flash of yellow and black, you think it's a bee or a wasp, and you go into panic mode with one thought… ‘oh my God, it's going to sting me!’ 

So you kill it. If it’s on the ground you may step on it, or if it’s in the air you swat at it or get the bug spray. But you may be confronted with a huge nest and you call in a pest control team to take care of it. 

What if I was to tell you that it is neither a bee or a wasp and that your actions are doing more harm than good? 

The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) is asking the public not to panic and kill Asian hornets. It follows national media attention on the species after reported sightings went up in May and from record numbers across the UK last year. 

Asian hornets (also known as the yellow-legged hornet) might look similar to a bee or a wasp but they are much darker. They have a distinctive orange stripe on their abdomen section, have yellow on the end of their legs and are smaller when compared to the European Hornet.

Julie Trice is the Asian hornet action team coordinator at the Farnham British Beekeepers Association and has been studying the species since 2018.

“Quite understandably, most people don't know the difference between a medium wasp and a large, darker wasp and an Asian hornet or a European hornet,” Julie said.

“In the beginning they were imported accidentally from China in 2004, to the Bordeaux region of France and it was one mated yellow-legged Asian Hornet Queen.

“She then proceeded to set up home and her progeny over the next 20 years has spread across France, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Italy.”

The UK seemed to remain unaffected by the species until confirmed sightings in 2016. In the first two years, hornet numbers were under control until they increased in 2018 and continued to spiral.

Kent has become a hotspot for the species as it is opposite from France just across the Dover Strait. The Animal and Plant Health Agency’s (APHA) National Bee Unit, located and destroyed 72 nests in 56 locations last year, with the majority found in Kent. 

Although Surrey has had no reported sightings, beekeeper-related associations and councils are urging people to be aware, because Kent is one of the neighbouring counties. 

The spotlight on Asian hornets has been so significant, that there was an interactive exhibit about them at the Chelsea Royal Flower Show this year. 

It was put on by APHA and the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra). The Minister of State for Trade & for London, Greg Hands, attended the exhibit. 

On Twitter, he said: “At the Chelsea Flower Show I was alarmed at the spread of the Asian hornet. Stay vigilant over this invasive species which preys on our honey bees!”

Although they may look a bit frightening they won’t sting you and the species only become aggressive if their nests are disturbed. You need to take caution and avoid approaching or doing anything that could upset them.

Julie said: “The reason why we are not keen on having them and the reason that mainland Europe are having a lot of problems, is because they are an incredibly successful species.

“They will take wasps, flies, solitary bees, caterpillars, spiders, butterflies and anything they can strip all of the extraneous bits off. It leaves a lovely little protein package that they then go back to their nest to feed their larvae with.

 “I’ve even found a hedgehog in their stomachs so they are not averse to roadkill. We perceive them as real damage of what they could do to biodiversity in the UK as they have achieved in France. If you take out all the pollinators, who's going to be doing the pollinating?”

A French study published in December 2020, revealed that a single Asian hornet can consume 11.32 kg of insects in one season. Honeybees were the favourite consumption at 38 per cent, flies at 29.9 per cent and wasps were 19.7 per cent. The study also found they will try to target local prey that is available to them, as Julie said they do not venture more than 600 metres from their nests.

Julie added that if people suspect an Asian hornet or a nest, then it needs to be reported. By being notified of sightings, BBKA, government and other authorities can investigate further and monitor numbers.

Defra and APHA have created an iPhone and Android app called ‘Asian Hornet Watch’ and an online report form for people to use. 

The app will also make it easier for people to determine whether they have actually spotted an Asian hornet. With pictures available of other insects that it could be confused with and other helpful information. 

Defra’s chief plant and bee health officer Professor Nicola Spence said: “By ensuring we are alerted to possible sightings as early as possible, the public can help us take swift and effective action to stamp out the threat posed by Asian hornets.

“While the Asian hornet poses no greater risk to human health than other wasps or hornets, they can damage honey bee colonies and harm other pollinators.

“Please continue to be vigilant for any Asian hornets and if you think you’ve spotted one, report your sighting through the Asian hornet app or online.”

Lorry and other transport drivers should be extra observant too, because it was one of many ways that Asian hornets travelled to several countries, along with hiding in flower pots and other containers. 

Unfortunately, they appear to be here to stay, according to APHA. In May, DNA testing was done on three hornet queens that were found at Four Oaks in Kent and individuals at Romford in London and Ash in Kent.

Analysis showed that the hornets found at Four Oaks were overwintered offspring of the nest destroyed in Rye, Kent, in November last year. It means the species are starting to establish themselves in the UK and the risk that numbers will keep growing as they produce more offspring. 

To stop the spread, Julie said: “Take a picture and if we can tempt a local Asian hornet onto a bait station, it enables the national bee unit Defra to be able to track it back to the nest and destroy it. 

That’s really what we need to be doing and not killing, because killing an individual insect achieves zero. We have got to get back and take out the nest.”

So if you suspect that you have seen an Asian hornet report it and leave it alone.

BBKA has several branches in Surrey with Guilford being the closest one to Woking. Other locations include Farnham and Fleet if you need advice, are looking for more information or want to keep up to date with the Asian Hornet situation.

Alternatively, there is the Surrey Beekeepers Association, Surrey Wildlife Trust and the County Council.