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How to Make a Killing in the Hive: The Story of the So-Called "Murder Hornet"

Today on Enter the Unusual with CM Loves Science, we're talking hornets and the real deal behind the new murder hornet meme/news story.

*This post was originally a vlog, it's been reformatted and retyped to suit those not on Instagram, or who prefer to read!*

First of all, what are they really?

The “murder hornet” also known as the sparrow wasp, the Asian Giant Hornet, and officially Vespa mandarinia, is a member of the order Hymenoptera which also includes other wasps, bees, and hornets. They’re BIG with a wingspan of almost 3 inches and a large, bright yellow head. They’re social, which means they live in groups that build nests each year. These particular guys are unusual in that they nest on the ground! But I know you didn’t come here to hear me describe this hornet and its life history to you, so let me switch gears real quick.

Credit: LA Times

What’s going on, and why is the Asian Giant Hornet in the news all of a sudden?

It was reported last week by the New York Times that two individuals were sighted in Washington State and possibly more in a town nearby in Canada - though it was discovered that these individuals were introduced separately and did not belong to the same nest. As hornets become a nuisance as they are prone to do around summer, they’re also just on our minds more, which makes this topic very interesting to us. Also, the name “murder hornet” has caused quite the buzz… No pun intended… As sensationalized names are intended to do. Of course, people are now afraid that they’re going to be attacked or killed by these frightening intruders. How realistic is that? Well, let me first tell you a little more about who they are because the first step to addressing environmental issues is understanding our environment.

So, where are they native to?

These hornets are native to - you guessed it - Asia! To be more specific, China, Sri Lanka, India, and Japan. How they got here hasn’t been determined, but it's hypothesized they may have come over in a shipping container… Regardless, they are not supposed to be in the US or anywhere other than Asia, for that matter.

The native range of Vespa mandarinia
Credit: A-Z Animals

Oh, so they’re invasive?

Well, that’s tough to say right now. For a species to be considered invasive they have to spread to a degree that would cause substantial damage to the environment, and for these guys, that hasn’t happened yet, not even close. However, they certainly have all the qualities that make a good invasive species: they can fly and move about freely, they are scary, we have little or no experience with them, and they prey on an already disappearing species on which we heavily rely: bees.

What are they doing to bees?

Like other species of hornet, Vespa mandarinia is predatory - and their prey of choice is honeybees. This is extra unfortunate given that honeybees in the US are already declining at alarmingly rapid rates. There are two phases of bee colony destruction that the hornets partake in. The first, which is aptly named “slaughter phase,” occurs as the hornets rip the heads off of the worker bees to destroy the colony. This can take as little as 90 minutes. Afterward, they enter the feeding phase, where they eat the young bees that are still in larval or pupal stages. This is absolutely devastating to a bee colony and is - in most cases - irrecoverable. But all hope is not lost, because the bees are fighting back.

Ummm… How?

For one, bee balls. Nope, they’re not hitting the court in their sneakers; bee balls or bait balls are a technique used by bees to avoid predation and kill their attacker. Essentially, worker bees will surround the attacker and form a giant ball, they will vibrate their wings which generates energy in the form of heat which basically cooks the predator to death before it can “call for backup” using its pheromones, or naturally generated communicatory scents. Unfortunately, some scientists in Japan have determined that workers who participate in bait balls are dying much more quickly than they normally would, suggesting this behavior wouldn’t be sustainable in the face of a major invasion. But only time can (but hopefully won’t!!!) tell. It would be an absolutely devastating loss to us though, as bees are incredibly important to us and our economy.

Credit: New Scientist

But why are bees so important?

Good question, pollinators (which includes bees) are responsible for about 35% of the food we eat. A pollinator carries pollen from a male plant to a female plant where it can fertilize the ova and create a new seed. This process is so important to our planet, it’s effectively irreplaceable, and without them it’s estimated that our crop production could drop almost 90%. Bees have contributed almost $15 billion to the US economy and continue to offer opportunities for business and agricultural ventures. Unfortunately, in the panic that was incited by word that “murder hornets” had made it to the US, people began to destroy native bee and wasp colonies. This is the absolute OPPOSITE of the correct reaction, as a stable ecosystem is better at resisting invasion and without our native insect populations our ecosystem will be anything but stable. The people of Asia have been able to live with these hornets and have no decimated their native populations in retaliation, please don’t make an already unfortunate situation exponentially worse, y’all.

But how am I supposed to tell them apart from other Hymenoptera?

It’s honestly pretty simple if you remain calm and really focus in on the insect. But Asian Giant Hornets are significantly larger than most hornets we have here, with the exception of a few species such as the European Hornet or the Cicada Killer. It resembles both of those most strongly but is still bigger and has a bright yellow head, a meaningfully darker thorax, and darker wings. I say this in the nicest way possible, but it looks NOTHING LIKE A BEE Y’ALL! PLEASE DON’T KILL BEES! See this awesome photo from the Washington State Department of Agriculture © or the others in my article for reference.

Credit: WA Dept. of Ag.
Credit: U of Clemson
Credit: Workshop Guardian

Am I really at risk?

That’s a difficult question to answer at this point in time. Currently, there is no solid evidence that anyone should be fearing for their life (in the US at least) or should be fearful at all, to be honest. Of course, it’s ok to be on the lookout, and it’s great to educate yourself and your family on the off chance you do encounter one of these bad boys, but at the end of the day, there isn’t yet cause of alarm. Also, keep in mind that these insects aren’t new… They’re new to us but they’ve been living amongst the people of Asia for a long time and it’s only just now come to our attention. Just keep that in mind.

That said… What should I do if I see one and I’m SURE it’s an Asian Giant Hornet?

Call the authorities and make note of exactly where you saw it and where it went. If you can locate the nest (safely, of course) that’s even better. Do not put yourself in danger, but do not ignore it. If you fear you’ve been stung by an Asian Giant Hornet go to the hospital (or call 911 for an ambulance) and tell them your concerns.

To see the vlog version of this post, visit my Instagram @cmlovesscience!

To see my source list, click here!

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