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The French honey industry is under threat from hordes of bee-massacring oriental hornets, the Daily Telegraph reports.

The forests of Aquitaine, in south-west France, now play host to swarms of the the Asian Hornet, Vespa velutina, which is believed to have arrived there "from the Far East in a consignment of Chinese pottery in late 2004".

Entomogist Jean Haxaire, who first eyeballed the invaders, said: "Their spread across French territory has been like lightning."

Haxaire said he's now counted 85 "football-shaped" nests across the 40 miles which separate the towns of Marmande and Podensac "in the Lot et Garonne department where the hornets were first spotted".

The Asian Hornet can cause some serious damage to a human, "inflicting a bite which has been compared to a hot nail entering the body". But that's not the principal threat they pose. They can decimate a nest of 30,000 bees "in a couple of hours" in search of larvae on which to feed their young. This, unsurprisingly, gives local beekeepers serious cause for alarm.

The hornets are just the latest blow to the French beekeeping industry. Pesticides and hot summers have taken their toll on bee populations, and a spokesman for the French National Bee Surveillance Unit said the winter mortality rate among bees had risen to six in ten.

Accordingly, honey production has been hit hard - down 60 per cent in south-western France in the last 10 years. The country's 1.3 million hives, managed by 80,000 beekeepers, are unable to supply demand and France now imports 25,000 tonnes of honey annually.

The Bee Surveillance spokesman lamented: "The arrival of these hornets has made the situation considerably worse. The future of our entire industry is at stake."

In Britain, meanwhile, it looks like we'd better start stockpiling honey. Stuart Hine, manager of the Insect Information Service at London's Natural History Museum, warned: "There's no doubt that these hornets are heading north and will probably find their way to Britain at some point."

There is, however, some hope for Blighty. While Hine confirmed climate change meant the hornets would find summers very much to their liking, "they would still have difficulty coping with our winter frosts". ®

Bootnote

Apparently, 40 people die each year in France as a result of hornet stings, "mainly because of allergic reactions". Claire Villement, of France's Natural History Museum, has called for calm and asked citizens not to succumb to "national panic about killer wasps". "The legend that three bites from a hornet can kill you are totally false. People can still enjoy their picnics in the countryside."

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