Ambushing locals as they return home from work, foreign invaders are dismembering French natives and feeding them to their young.

This horror scenario is playing out in France's beehives, where an ultra-aggressive species of Asian hornets - who likely migrated in pottery shipped from China - may be threatening French honey production.

The hornets are thought to have reached France in 2004 after stowing away on a cargo boat, said Claire Villemant, a lecturer at Paris' Natural History Museum.

She said a France-based bonsai merchant traveled to the Yunnan province of southern China to buy ceramic pots for his trees.

"He saw the hornets in that region," she said. When he saw them again, they were buzzing around his property in the southwestern French village of Tonneins.

Since then, the hornets have been establishing themselves in their adopted country, concentrating mostly on building imposing nests.

It took until last summer for their numbers to start threatening honey production, said Henri Clement, president of the National Union for French Beekeeping. He said it was too early to give figures on the hornets' economic impact, but he is bracing for a tough summer.

©AP Photo/Bob Edme
View of a dead Asian hornet after it was caught in a hornet nest in Parempuyre, near Bordeaux, southwestern France, in this Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2007 file photo. Ambushing locals at they return home from work, Asian invaders are dismembering French natives and feeding them to their young. This horror film is playing in France's beehives, where an ultra-aggressive species of Asian hornets, who likely migrated in a pottery shipment from China, may be threatening French honey production. It's the latest Chinese challenge to France, struggling to stay competitive in the face of China's booming economy and cheaper, more flexible labor markets.

The situation is "very worrying," he said. "If the hornets keep attacking the bees then their number will be reduced and honey production will be severely handicapped."

France's 1.1 million hives produce up to 30,000 tons of honey a year, about 2,500 tons of which are exported, according to the French national agency for fruits, vegetables and horticulture.

Experts fear the hornets - which also sting humans - may spread to the warmer reaches of southern Europe. They could begin colonizing Spain as early as this summer, Villemant said. Even Britain could be vulnerable if they hornets cross the English Channel through freight, she said.

Mike Hood, entomology professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, warned, "If it could spread to France, it could spread to other regions of the world, so that would be a concern for the U.S."

North America is already suffering its own bee troubles.

An invasion of highly aggressive Africanized bees has spread across the southern United States. These "killer bees" are easily provoked and attack in huge numbers. Since the hybrid Africanized bees are considered less efficient than European bees, beekeepers worry they could lower honey production and pollination.

A mysterious illness has killed tens of thousands of honeybee colonies in at least 22 U.S. states, threatening honey production. The cause of the ailment, called Colony Collapse Disorder, is unclear.

In France, the Asian hornets have spread quickly and turned once-tranquil hives into battlefields, since there are no natural predators in the region.

Bigger and bulkier than their European cousins, the hornets have no trouble overcoming honeybees. They ambush beehives and dismember the bees, ripping off their heads, antennae, and wings and reducing them to a paste to feed the hornet queen and her larvae.

The honeybees are beginning to mount a counteroffensive, Villemant says: They gather around an invading hornet, flap their wings to increase the temperature and effectively roast it.

Beekeepers also are fighting back - they can change the size of the entrances to the hives so the smaller bees can get in but not the hornets.

Some have suggested destroying all hornet nests in the region, including those of French and European hornets. But Villemant says that would be ecologically disastrous.

Hood said French beekeepers "could go back to where (the hornets) came from to find natural predators." But he added, "You have to be careful with this kind of solution as what you bring back might be worse than the pest problem you already have."