Sustainability: honeybees vs oriental hornets

Last Updated on Thursday, 15 June, 2023 at 2:38 pm by Andre Camilleri

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit a scenic site in Burmarrad, whereby indispensable insects were discretely working for us humans and the survival of our planet. Obviously, to access the aforementioned site we had to ask for the permission of the person that maintains it. I met with a beekeeper who really knows the job. He was explaining each and every detail from the type of bees, their lifespan, the hours of work, as well as how far they travel within the proximity of the site to pollinate our flowers and crops, which in turn enriches our harvest. As you might be aware of, while doing their pollination work, bees are also producing honey and other beehive products which are beneficial for us humans.

Simply put, without bees we cannot survive. However, their survival depends on many complex factors. Some factors are natural occurrences, while others are humanly induced interferences with the environment, such as the use of pesticides and herbicides. There are also factors that we do not have control over, as they are part of the ecosystem, including the passing of the bee-eaters’ birds – Qerd in-Naħal. Recently I met with a few interested parties and they mentioned the bee-eaters. Essentially, I am told that in recent years, migratory arrivals of bee-eaters increased in their numbers. Obviously, I do not have this information and I cannot verify it. Perhaps, Bird Life or FKNK might have the statistics. Surely, the colours of the bee-eaters are mesmerising. Needless to say, it is illegal to hunt the bee-eaters, just like it is illegal to trap the ortolan bunting birds here in Malta. Odd as it may sound, the ortolan bunting birds are found on the French menu as part of their delicacies. Indeed, in 2016, the European Commission issued a reasoned opinion to take France to the European Court of Justice on the banning of the trapping of the ortolan bunting migratory birds. Hitherto, we do not have public information about the court case. Perhaps, the information might be sitting somewhere within the Berlaymont building. We would be grateful if the European Commission updates its webpage.

Regrettably, on the day of my visit, the weather didn’t allow bees to go out and work normally. It was windy, and cloudy. In turn, the host told me that the bees were frustrated, because they are limited by the climatic conditions, with wind working against their effort to pollinate the crops and their flowers. The most interesting part was obviously the recounting of the production of honey, and how it is carried to the hives. Bees collect nectar from the flowers, placing it in their stomachs to be carried back to their meticulous clean and sterile hives. The returning foraging bees regurgitate this nectar to the waiting nurse bees, which in turn carry this nectar, also in their stomachs, to be stored in hexagonal wax comb cells. Here, the nectar is air dried by bees, which fan their wings to control its moisture content. This creates the viscous honey product we are familiar with. What originally started off as nectar, is then transformed with the addition of beneficial enzymes by the bees during the regurgitate process. In turn, we humans value bees’ puke, for its natural sweetening properties as well as its medicinal value. And certainly, in winter we all long for a spoon of tasteful honey to swiftly recover from mild colds and restore our voice.

While at the apiary, I asked the beekeeper a few questions about the oriental hornet. Now that summer is approaching, I thought it might be pertinent to ask a few questions on how to limit their reproduction and augmentation. Indeed, I asked the host if bee-eaters are fond of oriental hornets. Apparently, the shell of hornets is harder and bee-eaters prefer bees, as they are softer, sweeter and tastier. However, bee-eaters are only in Malta during early spring, just before the hornets start conglomerating and appearing in large numbers. Given that hornets are carnivores, surely bees are easy prey for them. Plainly, I asked if oriental hornets attack bees while they are doing their job. Indeed, they do. Obviously, bees feel terrorised when oriental hornets are around. Hence, they choose to stay indoors with the consequence of having less pollination which in turn results in less harvest and honey. Such great distress pushes bees and their colonies into collapse.

As opposed to bees, hornets are also a vector which carry diseases between bee colonies. Certainly, this is quite alarming especially for a small territory like ours. Apparently, oriental hornets feast on anything that contains protein. Therefore, we also need to think about our food wastes that attracts them. Furthermore, I asked the host whether oriental hornets can be limited in their reproduction. The discussion turned on altering the DNA of oriental hornets using RNAi techniques. At this point I said that there are also ethics involved and that the procedure would need to be carefully, and scientifically observed, with fundamental principles attached to research. Asking how that would be possible, the host told me that the idea mimics methods carried out in Germany on beetles. I didn’t elaborate on the topic but there are several research papers related to studies involving RNAi techniques used to control pest beetles and mites. Seemingly, the same procedures can be adapted to oriental hornets. Also, I am told that an EU Prima-funded project is currently in the application stages where this project involves 11 Mediterranean countries both European as well as North African. The idea is to gather information on the current oriental hornets’ colonies and the situation across Mediterranean countries, to then develop RNAi techniques to limit the reproduction.

Obviously, such procedures require strict controls, verifications and ethics. I must admit that genetic modifications, unless truly to save the planet, is not a topic that I pursue. Frankly, I find it quite disturbing. However, one needs to enable science to help solve such crisis. Undoubtedly, the alterations on any specie must be carried out only to minimise the harm on the ecosystem and the environment. For instance, if invasive alien hornets start to outnumber beneficial pollinators, including honeybees, then I am not against the use of such technologies that would enable the re-establishment of a balanced situation. Otherwise, if the situation continues to spiral out of control, we will be faced with devastating results on the ecosystems across the entire Mediterranean region. Certainly, our fragile ecosystem would also see the very existence of indigenous insects and pollinators pushed closer to possible extinction. Even if it is at the early stages of inception, such ambitious research projects need to evolve through strict verifications, controls and protocols.

Lastly, if you spot a bee flying around you this summer, especially if you are wearing a scented cologne, do not mistake it for an oriental hornet. Remember the benefits of bees for our planet. We need them for our survival.

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