2020 has been an interesting year so far and it isn’t even halfway through. It started with fires and floods in Australia, war escalation in the Middle East, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, an invasive species of giant “murder” hornets has started spreading through the U.S.
The Asian Giant Hornets are the world’s biggest among its species. They get over 2 inches long, they are every beehive’s nightmare, and their venom is strong enough to kill even people after several stings. What’s more, they are also strong enough to puncture beekeepers’ protective gear, which makes fighting these “murder hornets” even more difficult.
“They’re like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face,” said Susan Cobey, a bee breeder from the Washington State University Department of Entomology. Washington State is where the invasion seems to have started and so far there haven’t been any sightings in other states.
How did this happen?
Asian Giant Hornets haven’t been sighted in the U.S. up until now and it’s still unclear how they ended up in Washington State. According to Seth Truscott from the Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, the invasive species might have traveled the Pacific through international cargo ships.
The first sighting was in December 2019 but much more major sightings are being observed now as the queens have emerged from hibernation.
“Hornets are most destructive in the late summer and early fall, when they are on the hunt for sources of protein to raise next year’s queens,” Truscott said. “They attack honey bee hives, killing adult bees and devouring bee larvae and pupae, while aggressively defending the occupied colony. Their stings are big and painful, with a potent neurotoxin. Multiple stings can kill humans, even if they are not allergic.”
Washington state agricultural officials have warned beekeepers and the state’s residents to stay away from the giant hornets should they encounter them. Once safe, residents are also encouraged to report any sighting on the state’s emergency app. For beekeepers, the state’s officials also recommend reinforced suits as standard beekeeper suits are not enough to stop these giant hornets.
Chris Looney, an entomologist from the state Department of Agriculture also warns people about these hornets.
“Don’t try to take them out yourself if you see them,” he said. “If you get into them, run away, then call us! It is really important for us to know of every sighting if we’re going to have any hope of eradication.”
According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the active season for these hornets is just beginning.
“The most likely time to catch Asian giant hornets is from July through October — when colonies are established and workers are out foraging. Traps can be hung as early as April if attempting to trap queens, but since there are significantly fewer queens than workers, catching a queen isn’t very likely.”
Should we be worried?
While these sightings are unpleasant and potentially dangerous for beekeepers and the bee populations in Washington State and Northwestern U.S., it won’t be “the end of the world”, most experts say.
“It’s not an existential threat to mankind or to the U.S. or to our honeybee industry to have,” said entomologist Doug Yanega. “Even if they do get established and build a foothold here, the scale of the threat is greatly overblown.”
“It really only pertains to the immediate vicinity of Vancouver Island and the adjacent parts of Washington, which are places like Blaine — maybe in a worst-case scenario as far as South Bellingham, which is still the extreme northwest corner of the US,” Yanega explained.