Despite a week of sensationalized reporting, the U.S. is not facing an imminent invasion by the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), but equally we cannot be complacent about the potential destruction the recently dubbed “murder hornet” could inflict. Put simply, while the murder hornet poses little direct threat to human beings, if left unchecked, the insect could hinder our food supply chains. There is still time to trace, track, contain, and eliminate this pest. The onus is on us to do so.
Native to Japan, China, Southern Russia and South East Asia, the Asian giant hornet was first identified in the Western Hemisphere in Vancouver Island, Canada in September 2019. The first sighting in the United States was recorded in December 2019, just over the border in Blane, Washington. How the insect arrived in North America is unclear; most theories point to it hitching a ride in a shipping container, or possibly, on a person.
The murder hornet is an imposing insect. On average, “workers” are almost 2 inches long, sport a ~3-inch wingspan, and a ¼ inch long stinger (insert joke here) capable of injecting a powerful venom. “Queens” are even larger and can grow to over 2 inches in length.
Contrary to published rumors and hysteria online, unless provoked, the Asian giant hornet usually leaves humans alone. In a typical year, under 100 people succumb to hornet stings. Of those, most occur in Japan where the giant hornet is consumed as a delicacy, usually in rural parts of the country. The few Homo sapiens who have been stung compare it to a warm nail or knife being driven into the affected area – extremely painful – but not fatal. Indeed, the “murder” hornet can only commit such an atrocity by committee, in a swarm.
The overwhelming majority of humans “murdered” by the Asian giant hornet (and other insects) perish not from being stung, but rather from an allergic reaction which can trigger anaphylactic shock. According to the Journal of Asthma and Allergy, ~6% of the population will experience a “severe allergic reaction” to insect stings. “Estimates show that potentially life-threatening allergic reactions to insect venom occur in 0.4 percent to 0.8 percent of children and 3 percent of adults.”
Factoid: The most potent hornet venom comes from the species, Vespa luctuosa, native to the Philippines.
Like the Asian giant hornet, honeybees were once foreign to America; they were brought across the Atlantic by European colonists centuries ago. However, unlike their distant cousins they are now an integral part of our ecology.
By some estimates, honeybees contribute almost $20 billion to our economy helping farmers increase yields and quality of a variety of crops, and of course via honey and beeswax production. According to the American Beekeeping Federation, “blueberries and cherries, are 90-percent dependent on honeybee pollination. One crop, almonds, depends entirely on the honeybee for pollination at bloom time.”
In The U.S., almonds are grown exclusively in California. Growers in the Golden State “require 1.8 million colonies of honeybees in order to adequately pollinate nearly one million acres of bearing almond orchards.”
“Food” For Thought
Oregon separates Washington, home to the first sighting of a murder hornet in America, from California to the south. Hornets can fly ~60 miles in a day. When hungry, they fancy honeybees and their larva for a nutritious, tasty snack. The aforementioned factors yield a problem.
Honeybees are virtually defenseless against the much larger Asian giant hornet, armed with sharp, powerful mandibles. Their only (faint) hope to ward off the larger predator is to bunch up together and form a ball. While in this formation, the honeybees vibrate their wings. This causes the temperature inside the colony to rise to ~115(F) degrees. This action would deter one hornet but prove no match for a swarm.
Once they have successfully penetrated the honeybees’ defense, the Asian giants slay the honeybees by decapitation. One hornet can kill ~40 honeybees per minute. A few hornets will produce an expectantly higher number of casualties. “The hornets can even enter a state known as the 'slaughter phase' in which 20 to 30 of them can kill anywhere between 5,000 and 25,000 honeybees in a few hours.”
If left to chance alone, the murder hornet could very well spawn, multiply exponentially, and quickly establish itself as a natural predator to the honeybee (and other bees). Their respective populations would be decimated. The crops that depend on their services for pollination might be left to fallow. The result: lower quality produce and higher prices to obtain it.
We must not allow the Asian giant hornet to establish a beachhead in California or anywhere else in America. Authorities must work diligently and be proactive to eliminate this pest. Thus far, sightings have been limited to Washington. Entomologists at The Washington State Department of Agriculture are taking the threat of the Asian giant hornet seriously. The state is allocating resources to educate the public and encouraging citizens to report any sightings. We applaud these efforts and beelieve appropriate education and action must continue to ensure the murder hornet does not enjoy life in America.