By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As if the world didn’t have enough to worry about, the term “murder hornets” suddenly began popping up on newsfeeds and as memes. Now there are reports of people killing perfectly innocent bees and other insects which we need for survival because people are mistaking them for the giant hornets. But, entomologists ask that we all take a deep breath and not freak out and please stop calling them “murder hornets.”
The hornet In question is the world’s largest measuring 2 inches long with a 3-inch wing span. A honey bee is about ¾ inches long and the larger hornets can attack and decimate honey bee colonies in a very short time. The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is fairly common in many parts of Asia, where it is called the “Giant hornet.”
The hornets made their way to the U.S. for the first time in December, when the Washington State Department of Agriculture verified four reports of sightings. The hornets were also spotted in two locations in British Columbia last fall.
“It’s a ridiculous name,” says Akito Kawahara, an entomologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “I think it’s totally misleading. Insects already have a bad perception.”
Kawahara researches the evolution and diversity of insects.
“The word ‘murder’ conjures notions of something that presents a terrible danger or threat to people,” he added. “The arrival of these giant hornets is nothing approaching a calamitous, universal human scourge, like, say, a viral pandemic with no vaccine or treatments.”
“Don’t freak out,” Kawahara warns, “it’s unknown how many hornet colonies there are in the U.S. Lots of things come to the country and they aren’t able to survive. Just be aware.”
Professor Gard Otis, an expert in honeybee biology and insect ecology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, is also not a fan of the term “murder hornet.”
“There’s no such thing, I don’t like that term,” Otix said. “They are hornets, which is a group of wasps that tend to be fairly large. They’re all Asian and European in origin. They’re giant, they’re huge. Their sting carries a lot of venom and really hurts, but for the most part these hornets are not a concern for human safety. They just got the name ‘murder hornet’ because they can murder a colony of bees pretty quickly.
“We should be concerned because these are large, predatory wasps and they feed their larvae with protein, and that protein comes from other insects,” Otis said. “And toward the end of the summer, when their colony starts to get big, eventually they might reach 1,000 hornets in a single colony.”
As the colonies’ food demands grow, they start to focus on other social insects like wasps and bees. And that concerns scientists and researchers alike.
Scientists say the Asian giant hornet’s life cycle begins in April and when the queen wakes up from hibernation, she looks for spots to build underground nests and grow colonies.
Researchers said the hornets attack the bee hives, decapitating and killing the adults and eating the larvae and pupae. Just a few of the hornets can completely destroy a hive in a few hours. Asian honeybees have defenses as they start buzzing, raising the temperature and cook the invading hornet to death. Honeybees in America don’t have that defense mechanism.
The hornets do not typically attack humans, but if they do, not even beekeeping suits can protect against the hornets’ stingers, which are longer and more dangerous that a bee’s sting.
“The hornets have very large stingers, they produce a lot of venom and there’s approximately 30 to 50 people each year who die in Japan and China,” said Dr. Daniel Pavuk, an entomology professor at Bowling Green State University.
“We don’t want people to freak out too much about this,” Pavuk added. “As of now, the hornets have only been spotted in Washington state and they likely came from East Asia on a cargo ship. They’re very proactive at trying to find if there are colonies established in Washington state to eradicate those as quickly as possible.”
“It’s a real concern,” said Kent Ramge, owner of Ramge Acres farm in Perrysburg, Ohio. “It’s not at the top of my list, but as it pertains to honeybees, they have a lot of enemies and a lot of things they have to overcome. Right now, the varroa mite is probably one of the biggest and most significant challenges to the honeybee currently and so that’s more of a concern at this point than the murder hornet.”
“The chances of them reaching Ohio are relatively small,” said Meghan Harshbarger, media outreach specialist at Ohio Department of Agriculture. “Our inspectors will be on the lookout for them.”
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has not confirmed sightings of the murder hornet in that state. After reports of the insect in the U.S. last week, people took to social media to speculate on the giant guys they had been seeing in several areas, including Indiana.
“This time of year we receive a number of reports of ‘large bees’ that typically end up being either cicada killers or European hornets,” said Marty Benson, Assistant Director for the Indiana DNR. Those at the Indiana DNR say if the insect was seen in Indiana, it would likely show up around July or August.
“I do understand it is painful to be stung by one. It’s supposed to feel like a red hot nail, or something to that effect,” said Jonathan Larson, UK entomologist. “It’s because of their sheer size that they can deliver a lot of venom. Here in Kentucky we do have some look-alikes that appear very similar in shape and size of this insect. One is the European hornet, but their heads are less round and have maroon on each side of the head. If people see a large hornet in Kentucky, though, it’s likely a Cicada killer.”
The spotting of the Murder Hornet in Washington state has created quite a stir in the beekeeping community, but Otis cautions that there is no reason for panic.
“The odds of the these hornets spreading across the U.S. is about the same as winning a $50 million jackpot,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, just extremely unlikely. I also believe that beekeepers would be able to adapt to the threat if it materialized.”
Otis points to Japanese beekeepers, who live in a climate where these Asian giant hornets thrive. Otis says these ‘keepers have developed traps and different ways of combating the hornets to keep their bees safe.
Bees support about $20 billion worth of U.S. agriculture each year, but are facing population declines around the world. Since 2006, beekeepers have lost nearly a third of their colonies each year. CCD is the main factor in the decline.