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from This is London


Invasion of the killer wasps

July 18, 2002

by Tim Utton, Science Correspondent, Daily Mail

They're aggressive, bad-tempered and from France. The Euro-wasps are back.

The insects are twice the size of their British relatives and have a fearsome reputation for attacking in swarms.

Gardeners across southern England are being warned to beware, as the wasps often nest in places where they can be disturbed easily, such as shrubs.

They also inject more venom and leave a larger puncture mark than the British wasp, making the sting much more painful.

They have existed in limited numbers in England for more than two decades, but recent mild winters mean more queens are surviving to breed again.

Insect expert David Fletcher, from East Sussex, said there are now record numbers of Eurowasps in Britain.

He said that he has already dealt with scores of nests throughout Sussex.

He warned that the wasps are much more likely to catch gardenersand walkers unawares. "The problem with Euro-wasp nests is that they are often concealed in dense bushes such as rhododendron, said Mr Fletcher, 41.

"They can be set off by someone just moving the lawnmower or walking past. Gardeners need to be aware that these nests are likely to be there.

"The wasps perceive movement as a threat and attack en masse and swiftly. Their venom is quite toxic."

However, the worst is yet to come - Euro-wasp numbers normally peak in August.

The insect is said to have arrived in Britain from France at at the port of Newhaven in East Sussex in 1980.

It is believed the species has claimed at least one life here - a 63-year-old man in Devizes, Wiltshire, died in 1998 after receiving dozens of stings from what were thought to be Euro- wasps. A friend who went to his aid suffered a heart attack but survived the swarm.

Other victims that year included four-year-old Sophie Cousins, who was taken to hospital after being stung 70 times after disturbing a nest in her parents' back garden in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset.

Dr Gerald Legg, keeper of natural sciences at the Booth Museum in Brighton, said gardeners could easily identify the wasps by a marking on the thorax, which looked like a figure seven in yellow.

He said: "I saw one yesterday - it landed and grabbed a fly and chopped its head off.

"They are now quite common in Brighton. But it is where they nest that can cause the problems."

The camouflaged, football-sized nests are home to around 300 wasps, and are much smaller than domestic colonies, which can contain up to 15,000 insects and are normally hidden in places such as attics.

Only the queens survive the frosts of autumn, hibernating in houses, in compost heaps or underneath bark.

© Associated Newspapers Ltd

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