As if 2020 has not given Americans enough to worry about, between the coronavirus and economic anxiety, Washington beekeepers have reported the first sightings of Asian "murder hornets" in the U.S. The giant hornets kill up to 50 people a year in Japan and have mandibles shaped like a shark fin. They can wipe out a honeybee hive in just hours, decapitating bees and using their thoraxes to feed their babies. They also have long stingers with dangerous venom that come make it through a beekeeping suit, reports The New York Times.
In November, Ted McFall found a pile of dead bees at his hives near Custer, Washington. He told the Times thousands of bees had their heads separated from their bodies and there was no sign of who did it. "I couldn't wrap my head around what could have done that," he said. McFall later suspected the "murder hornet" was behind it. McFall is still not sure it really was a murder hornet, but Jeff Kornelis, who lives near McFall's property, told the Times he saw the body of the "biggest hornet I'd ever seen" in December.
A new threat reaches the United States: A massive hornet with mandibles that rip bees to shreds and a stinger so potent that one unfortunate victim likened it to "having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh."https://t.co/miU3QLGCF9— Mike Baker (@ByMikeBaker) May 2, 2020
After Kornelis looked at the body, he thought it might be the Asian giant hornet, which he thought was bizarre since it had not been seen in the U.S. yet at that point. Kornelis remembered a video of YouTube personality Coyote Peterson getting stung by one and made the connection. He called up Washington state officials, who confirmed it was an Asian giant hornet. They also learned another beekeeper saw one of the hornets.
The murder hornets have a unique look. "Beyond its size, the hornet has a distinctive look, with a cartoonishly fierce face featuring teardrop eyes like Spider-Man, orange and black stripes that extend down its body like a tiger, and broad, wispy wings like a small dragonfly," the Times reported. The hornets are so big that they can carry radio-frequency identification tags that scientists can use to keep an eye on their movements.
Ever since Kornelis and the other beekeeper reported seeing the murder hornets, scientists have been doing their best to make sure it does not gain a foothold in the U.S. "This is our window to keep it from establishing," Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, told the Times. "If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done."
Looney said it was hard to estimate how many of the hornets are in Washington, especially after the winter. Local beekeepers and agricultural biologists spent the winter preparing by setting raps. "Most people are scared to get stung by them," beekeeper Ruthie Danielsen, who worked with her colleagues to come up with a plan of attack, said. "We're scared that they are going to totally destroy our hives."
It's not clear how the hornets made their way to Washington state. They were seen in White Rock, British Columbia in November, about 10 miles from where they were seen in Washington state. Vancouver Island beekeeper Conrad Berube reported being stung seven times, describing it as "like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh."