Murder Hornets Make Their U.S. Debut

A close up of an Asian hornet's face

Image: Philippe Garcelon via Flickr

If 2020 couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, now 5 months in we have to worry about giant hornets with a venomous sting (known as “murder hornets”) invading North America. As WGN9 reported, “for the first time, Asian giant hornets have been spotted in the United States, specifically in Washington state, scientists say. Beekeepers have reported piles of dead bees with their heads ripped off, an alarming sight in a country with a rapidly declining bee population.”

Why This Matters: North America is experiencing continued collapses of honeybee and native bee colonies and the introduction of an aggressive new predator could be a disaster for these pollinators. Honeybees have no defense to the hornets and thus just a few hornets can devastate a hive.

The New York Times reported that “scientists have since embarked on a full-scale hunt for the hornets, worried that the invaders could decimate bee populations in the United States and establish such a deep presence that all hope for eradication could be lost.” The hope is to identify and eliminate hornet hives before they get the chance to spread.

Deadly Stats: As the New York Times explained, with queens that can grow to two inches long, Asian giant hornets can use mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins to wipe out a honeybee hive in a matter of hours, decapitating the bees and flying away with the thoraxes to feed their young.

  • For larger targets, the hornet’s potent venom and stinger — long enough to puncture a beekeeping suit — make for an excruciating combination that victims have likened to hot metal driving into their skin.
  • In Japan, the hornets kill up to 50 people a year.

Take a look at how the Asian hornets operate and what makes them so dangerous to pollinators:

A Threat to Humans?: As Bruce Y. Lee wrote for Forbes, “The murder hornets are probably not an immediate threat to health in 2020. Currently, there aren’t enough of them around. And they don’t seem to seek out humans to sting them like in some horror movie.” But if the hornets decimate pollinator colonies then that could be an imminent threat to agriculture.

BUT: Hornets are a formidable threat and we have some historical context to make us take this invasion seriously. As AgWeb explained, “in 2004, Yellow-legged hornet arrived in France, possibly within potted plants imported from China, and has spread quickly across several European countries, reaching Spain in 2010, Belgium in 2011, Germany in 2014, and the United Kingdom in 2016. Expansion rates indicate the Yellow-legged hornet moved across France at a rough rate of 35-50 miles per year.”

If You Spot a Hive: Firstly don’t approach the hive. Take note of where you saw it, run away, and then contact local officials. In Washington State, state officials set up traps and launched an app to quickly report sightings.

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