Beware of the “murder hornets,” because they are very aware of you. It sounds like a tagline for a new horror movie, but, in fact, it’s a very real warning. For the first time ever, the Asian giant hornet, referred to as the “murder hornet” by researchers, has been spotted in the U.S. — and it should worry all of us, according to The New York Times. This two-inch-long orange-and-black striped insect native to Asia could have major effects on America’s already struggling bee population.
As its nickname suggests, the Asian giant hornet is a killer, often of bees, which are already endangered. A beekeeper from Washington state described the slaughter of “thousands and thousands of bees with their heads torn from their bodies and no sign of a culprit.” He rightfully identified the killer as the hornets, which were initially discovered near his farm in December 2019.
The Asian giant hornets, the world's largest species of hornet, show no mercy to their tiny victims. They can wipe out whole beehives in a matter of hours with help from their spiky jaws, which allow them to decapitate their prey. However, these cartoonish-looking insects (their eyes have been compared to Spider-Man’s) can also wreak havoc on humans with their venomous stinger, which can pierce through a thick beekeeping suit.
While the insects that live in the low mountains and forests of Asia are not known to attack humans unless threatened, the pain from their sting is reportedly equivalent to that of a hot poker. The toxins from multiple stings can equal that of a venomous snake and can be deadly. The Asian giant hornet kills up to 50 people a year in Japan, according to The New York Times.
Scientists warn that if the “murder hornets” invade the U.S. they could destroy the country’s bee population, which would wreak havoc on the food industry. Perhaps worse, if the insects make its home in the U.S., it would make them nearly impossible to get rid of. Right now, it’s unclear how many colonies of Asian giant hornets, which have also been spotted in Canada, exist in North America.
It’s also unclear how the Asian giant hornet got here, though Seth Truscott from Washington State University’s college of agricultural, human and natural resource sciences said they could have been brought here on international cargo.
Scientists are working against the clock to stop them; hornets are most destructive in the late summer and early fall. "The most likely time to catch Asian giant hornets is from July through October — when colonies are established and workers are out foraging," Washington state's Department of Agriculture said in a statement.
However, Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, had a more dire message when speaking to The New York Times. “This is our window to keep it from establishing,” he said. “If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”
In Washington, local beekeepers and state agriculture biologists are trying to stop the spread and have had to get creative, too, since traditional hornet traps are too small for the Asian giant hornet. They’ve already put out hundreds of makeshift traps filled with orange and rice wine, or the fermented milk drink kefir, to exterminate the queen. The state is looking into using thermal imaging to spot the colonies and has launched an app that allows people to self-report sightings. “Don’t try to take them out yourself if you see them,” Looney told WSU Insider. “If you get into them, run away, then call us!”
But it isn’t easy. The colonies live underground and queens fly at speeds as high as 20 mph, which makes them hard to catch. Not to mention, the risk facing those putting out the traps. Yet, they must keep trying.
“Most people are scared to get stung by them,” beekeeper Ruthie Danielsen told The New York Times. “We’re scared that they are going to totally destroy our hives.”