Deaths fears grow as half-dozen more cases of red larvae Omicron found in Scotland

Health chiefs at the Scottish government said there was no evidence the tiny insect was being left in the food chain, as fears intensify of a potential outbreak in the country

The outbreak of Omicron has been traced to a site near Harlaw golf club in Edinburgh, where the tiny insect was found on a coffee machine. Photograph: Scottish government

There has been a steady increase in the presence of tiny, highly toxic red larvae known as Omicron across southern Scotland, with a further six cases now confirmed in the outbreak, the Scottish government has revealed.

But health chiefs at the Scottish government said there was no evidence the tiny insect was being left in the food chain, as fears of a potential outbreak in the country spread.

On 23 December, a coffee machine at Harlaw golf club in Edinburgh was found to contain a large number of the tiny red larvae.

Although it was thought to be in a low risk category, as Omicron is rarely found in quantities large enough to be detected, a survey identified an increase in the Omicron population since July. The workers became concerned and reported the discovery to the health department.

Further inspections by the Scottish government found a further five additional Omicron sites in southern Scotland with just one – a nursery nursery in Inverness – a sign that the presence of the insects is “sustained”, said the health minister, Shona Robison.

On Thursday, four more sites were found with larvae in them, but a small proportion had been caught and were released into soil.

Ms Robison said the species was “highly toxic”. She added: “We are aware of the concern of the community around this and the service involved has been doing everything it can to identify the species and inform the public.”

She said she had contacted communities to advise them about how to protect themselves from the insect.

While health officials say the species remains in a low risk category, the outbreak is concerning in the wake of the case of a super-sized Pelorus butterfly that ate 3,500 dead nightshade plants – 80% of the species’ natural range – just days before Christmas.

One expert warned that Omicron, which is only found in small quantities and more commonly caught off the British Isles, has a bee population-stifling habit.

Brian Law, insect biosecurity expert at the University of Aberdeen, said the species was harmful and potentially lethal to bees, moths and butterflies because of its large, acidic taste. He urged people not to consume any of the insects: “Omicron larvae are just one of those zips in the fly – they have no taste at all, they have an acidic bite that is very lethal.”

Robert McNaught, a director at Birdswift Wild Bird Rescue in Dumfries and Galloway, which is assisting with the Omicron outbreak, said the insects had already affected the bees and insects at his rehabilitation centre, which closed its orphanage on 17 December. “We were absolutely absolutely swamped with omicron earlier this month. We really needed to have room to hold them.”

The treatment centres in the UK, such as Birdswift, have seen an increase in numbers of omicron larvae, both here and in other parts of Europe.

“I am glad to hear the Scottish government are doing a lot to try and control this outbreak, but I am still concerned about the number of omicron in the environment,” McNaught said.

“I would ask the Scottish government to support ongoing research into the impact of Omicron on other species in the environment, and not just British bees and butterflies.”

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