Giant or Murder Hornets? Don’t Bee Alarmed Just Yet!

Murder Hornets? Don’t Bee Alarmed Just Yet!

In the midst of a global pandemic, few people would’ve guessed that the so-called “murder hornets” would be the next threat to arrive in the US. But after the two, two-inch-long insect bodies were found near Blaine, Washington, the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) quickly made its way into news headlines.

Like many invasive species, the giant hornets probably originated in international cargo being transported from their native range in East and South Asia. They are an apex predator, meaning they have no predators of their own. They form colonies consisting of one queen and many workers and feed on other insects, particularly honeybees.

So, what makes these hornets so dangerous? Giant hornets kill up to 50 people per year in Japan. They are especially harmful as their stingers are long enough to pierce through beekeeping suits. According to forestry researcher, Shun’ichi Makino, their sting feels like being “stabbed by a red-hot needle;” this feeling lasts several days. However, a single hornet doesn’t have enough venom to kill through toxicity alone. In fact, the majority of giant hornet-related deaths occur as a result of anaphylactic shock caused by existing bee and wasp allergies. The chances of being stung by one are small, considering that, like other hornets, giant hornets will only attack if provoked. These statistics sound worrying, but to put it in perspective, over a million people die from mosquito-related illnesses per year. 

It turns out that the real threat isn’t to humans, but to honeybees. Using their enormous mandibles, giant hornets are easily able to decapitate bees, feeding off their larvae once the workers are dead. This could cause a significant reduction in the United States’ already-declining honeybee population which threatens ecosystems that rely on having bees as pollinators. Not to mention, many fruits and vegetables rely on pollination by honeybees.

Interestingly, Japanese honeybees, who confront these hornets regularly, have evolved a unique defense mechanism: when a hornet enters their hive, the honeybees form a sphere around it to trap it in place. Then, the bees flap their wings, raising the temperature inside the sphere to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit to slowly “cook” the hornet to death.

The problem is, European honeybees (the same ones that reside in America) have never had to face an attack from giant hornets, and would thus have no way of knowing about this defense mechanism. In fact, when a small group of hornets invades a honeybee hive, they can destroy the entire colony within 90 minutes.

Now, as insects are beginning to emerge from their dormant winter states, scientists are carefully monitoring the Pacific Northwest for any signs of a giant hornet colony. If they do locate one, their next course of action would be to destroy the nest and prevent the hornets from spreading to other parts of the world. Meanwhile, beekeepers are taking extra precautions such as screening their beehives. Until we obtain more data on the origins and effects of giant hornets in the United States, the best thing we can do is to stay vigilant.

If you happen to spot a giant hornet, do not approach it. Instead, leave the area and contact your state’s Department of Agriculture immediately.