The response to the initial New York Times report has been so frenzied it’s prompted something of a backlash, with entomologists warning that panic over a rare and geographically isolated invasive hornet will lead to the indiscriminate killing of beneficial bees, wasps and hornets nationwide.
“Millions and millions of innocent native insects are going to die as a result of this,” Doug Yanega, an entomologist at the University of California at Riverside, told the Los Angeles Times.
Google searches for “hornet spray,” “hornet traps” and “insecticide” have surged, suggesting entomologists like Yanega have cause for concern. Searches for “how to kill hornets,” for instance, are currently running 20 to 30 times their usual levels for this time of year. Similarly, searches for hornet spray and hornet traps are up three- to tenfold.
As always, we should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation. But in this case it seems implausible that the spike is being driven by anything other than media-driven murder hornet panic. For instance, “how to kill hornets” began surging on May 3, the day after the publication of the initial New York Times article.
One important caveat is it’s not clear how much increased online interest translates into real-world behavior, such as going out and buying hornet spray. But given that search result pages for terms like “hornet traps” and “hornet spray” are dominated by e-commerce links, and that there’s an entire industry devoted to convincing people to buy things they search for, it’s reasonable to assume a correlation between searches and purchases in this case. We just don’t know how strong that correlation is.
“We have already had reports that people are poisoning native pollinators because they are concerned about the giant hornet,” said Scott Hoffman Black, president of the Xerces Society, an invertebrate conservation group. “We are also very concerned that people are stockpiling pesticides. The use of these pesticides could be much worse than any issues caused by the giant hornet — even if it were to establish — which is not certain.”
In a study published last year in the journal Biological Conservation, pesticide use was identified as one of the four main drivers of a global decline in insect population. The Google searches suggest people may end up putting more of those pesticides into their local environments via traps and sprays in an effort to fend off a creature that so far has been observed in only a single county in the United States.
“If you are not in Washington State, please DO NOT trap for Asian giant hornets,” the Washington State Department of Agriculture warns in a recent blog post. “You have virtually no chance of catching an Asian giant hornet but can kill local insects.”
In many ways the Asian giant hornet is the perfect phobia for our present cultural moment, with much of the country under orders to stay home because of the deadly threat of a different invasive entity. It’s easy to see how rage and frustration over the novel coronavirus — invisible, intangible, diffuse and deadly — would get redirected toward a big beefy hornet that would make an appealing target for a swatter or a spray.
There’s also the simple fact that the phrase “murder hornet” is a headline writer’s dream.
Black, of the Xerces Society, points out there have been zero confirmed sightings of the Asian giant hornet in the United States or Canada in 2020. So we may all be freaking out over an invader that’s no longer even on our shores. He suggests people skip the traps and sprays and instead spend time and money to make a better world for all the beneficial native bugs already here — even the wasps and hornets.