The latest news story striking fear into the hearts of Americans is about "murder hornets" — a rare and deadly breed of insects that just reached the United States. According to a report by The New York Times, the hornets were first spotted in Washington state in December, and experts are now becoming concerned about the threat they may pose to wildlife and to humans. One sting is enough to make anyone severely ill, and multiple stings can easily be fatal.
The "murder hornets" — or, Vespa Mandarinia — originate in Asia. They are reportedly responsible for up to 50 human deaths per year in Japan. As an invasive species in North America, however, they pose an even greater threat, as they could potentially wipe out honeybees altogether. As environmentalists have been warning for years, the dwindling population of honeybees has the potential to set off a chain reaction, upsetting huge swaths of the North American ecosystem.
As serious as the story is, it's no surprise that murder hornets all but took over social media this weekend. Their nickname alone is almost absurdly overstated, while the very real threat they pose struck many as the icing on the cake of an already heartbreaking year. Adding murder hornets in to the coronavirus pandemic, the government's recent UFO revelations and a string of celebrity deaths makes 2020 more merciless than ever.
In practical terms, however, it is not a bad idea for Americans to know the facts on murder hornets in case the problem persists in the coming months. According to a report by CBS News, entomologists and wildlife experts are working to contain the hornets in Washington state, but there is always a chance the species will sneak out. Here is what we know about the so-called murder hornets.
Murder hornets are officially known as Vespa Mandarinia, or, "the Asian giant hornet." According to The Times, it was researchers themselves who nicknamed these bugs "murder hornets" — the name that now seems to be sticking.
Their bodies are usually between 1.5 and 2 inches long, with a large yellow-orange head, prominent eyes, and black and yellow stripes on their abdomen. Washington State University's Susan Cobey told WSU Insider that the hornets look "like something out of a monster cartoon."
The Washington State Department of Agriculture released a graphic on Facebook showing how the murder hornet is much larger relative to its native cousins. Its stinger is commensurately larger, and it carries a heavy dose of neurotoxins, posing a much greater threat to humans.
Early U.S. Sightings
According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the first confirmed sighting of a murder hornet in the U.S. was in December, though signs of their presence were detected in November as well. The department also noted that the hornets were spotted in two separate locations in British Columbia in the fall as well, so they could be spread out across the northeast.
The destruction these hornets can cause was felt right away, beekeeper Ted McFall told The New York Times. He remembered pulling up to a group of hives in Washington back in November to find the carcasses of his bees all over the ground, piled up in and out of the hive.
"I couldn't wrap my head around what could have done that," he said. Later, McFall was convinced that he had witnessed an attack by murder hornets, which entomologist Todd Murray said was "a significant predator of honey bees."
While they were first spotted in the fall, the worst outbreak of murder hornets may be ahead of us, as researchers say their life cycle truly begins in April. They told WSU Insider that it begins with the queen waking up from hibernation first. She scouts a location to build underground nests and begin growing the colony.
The most dangerous part of the life cycle comes in the late summer and early fall. At that point, the hornets go out hunting, looking for the hives of smaller bees to devour. In all likelihood, the sightings in November and December were after the usual height of the hornets' strength.
Threat to U.S. Bee Population
Murder hornets are literally a predator to other species of hornets and bees, including the honeybee here in North America. Researchers say the hornets seek out a beehive and get straight to work killing the adult bees within — often by decapitation. They then eat the larvae and pupae within, ensuring that there will be no future generation of bees.
All of this is reportedly done within a matter of hours. At that rate, the hornets could overtake the already struggling honeybee population of the U.S. in no time. This would have ripple effects throughout the continental ecosystem, effecting the pollination of plants, the diets of the animals who eat them, and so on.
Threat to Humans
Aside from the ecological damage they could cause to our world, murder hornets are no small threat to a human being. Researchers say the hornets do not typically go after humans unless provoked. However, when they do, their stingers can cause much more damage than people are used to expecting from insects.
A murder hornet's stinger can pierce right through ha beekeeping suit, making people's usual methods of protection against bees useless. The overly long stinger carries neurotoxins which can be devastating even in small doses. Even those who are not allergic or particularly sensitive to bee stings would likely be made extremely ill by one of these stings. Multiple stings at once would quickly become fatal.
Beekeeper and entomologist Conrad Bérubé of British Columbia was stung, he told The Times, and afterward he experience flu-like symptoms. He said that his legs ached badly, and it was the most painful sting he has ever experienced — even in a career of caring for bugs.
Likewise, YouTube star Coyote Peterson was stung by a murder hornet on his show Brave Wilderness. He showed fans how the symptoms developed, beginning with an "instant goose egg" of bruising and inflammation where the stinger pierced his skin.
Researchers say that murder hornets are still largely confined to Washington state and north-eastern Canada. They also believe even an untrained eye would know to run for cover upon seeing one of these creatures — at two inches long, they are clearly distinguishable from more common species of hornets.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture Pest Program is actively tracking these hornets and trying to contain them. Anyone who believes they have spotted one in their area can report the sighting online, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 1-800-443-6684.