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‘Murder hornets’ are creating a buzz, but relax. The sightings don’t signal end times.

As this dead specimen reveals, the Asian giant hornet has fearsome jaws capable of decapitating large numbers of honeybees in their hive. Its tail packs a potentially lethal sting.
As this dead specimen reveals, the Asian giant hornet has fearsome jaws capable of decapitating large numbers of honeybees in their hive. Its tail packs a potentially lethal sting. (Karla Salp/AP)

Just when you think we can’t take any more of nature’s horrors, along comes a creature right out of “Jumanji.”

The Asian giant hornet is the jumbo jet of such insects, and in sufficient number can kill a person and destroy a whole colony of honeybees.

Native to East Asia, it has a toehold in the Pacific Northwest and, through scary press coverage, a grip on our collective psyche. It kills around 50 people a year in Japan, where it lives and is known as “the murder hornet,” according to the New York Times.

It is indeed a fearsome thing, with an orange-yellow head and a fat, striped body. It is almost two inches long — about twice the size of the frightful if quite nonaggressive hornet you are likely to see in an East Coast garden, the European hornet.

Two dead Asian giant hornets were found late last year in and around Blaine, Wash., with other sightings over the Canadian border in British Columbia. Among its weaponry is a set of jaws perfectly designed to snip the head off a honeybee, and when it raids a hive, the heads go flying. Oh, the horror of it all.

Take a deep breath, everyone.

The garden has lessons for us in this quarantine

If you put the hysteria aside, the two questions to ask are: Can we prevent the Asian giant hornet from establishing itself in the United States, and, if not, what are the consequences?

The Asian giant hornet, known as the “murder hornet” for its size and lethal venom, has made its first appearance in Washington state. (Video: Reuters)

One predictable response is that people, panicked but unable to tell a yellowjacket from a bumblebee, will start showering the world with pesticides, or hire a company to do so, and kill beneficial insects in the process.

Samantha Simon, a senior official with the Agriculture Department, welcomes the fact that “people are now more aware of invasive pests,” but said news reports “may have misrepresented the threat the hornet poses to people.”

Beekeepers in giant hornet lands such as China, the world’s leading producer of honey, have figured out how to live with the marauder. One way is to place excluders at the hive entrance.

The worry in the United States is that if the hornet becomes established, it may do enough damage to honeybee colonies that it will diminish their ability to pollinate fruit orchards and other crops on the West Coast, said Simon, executive director of emergency and domestic programs for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The service is working with other federal agencies and the Washington State Department of Agriculture to lure and trap giant hornets. Field technicians can then use captured hornets to trace their nests for destruction.

“I am confident, if the pest is here, we’ll be able to find it and eradicate it,” Simon said.

The murder hornet frenzy recalls the mass anxiety about “killer bees” spreading from Mexico a few decades ago. The 1978 movie “The Swarm” starred Michael Caine in a war against killer bees, and it exploited contemporary fears about the northward invasion of Africanized honeybees.

Africanized bees are more aggressive and sting in greater numbers than regular honeybees, and they are a management problem for beekeepers in warmer states. But the streets of Texas and Southern California are not littered with their victims. The film, by the way, was a commercial and critical flop. Caine, in a 2018 interview, called it “one of the worst pictures I made.”

For people who are dangerously allergic to stings, one bee, wasp or hornet is too many, but to put things in perspective, an average of 62 people a year in the United States die from stings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Around the world, more than 400,000 people a year die of malaria from mosquito bites.

The incursion of nonnative insect pests is linked to our global marketplace. Simon’s agency, which seeks to keep them out at the border, has a rogue’s gallery of 20 chief pests that public agencies and scientists are trying to contain.

I asked her which three she would magically eliminate, if she could. They are the emerald ash borer, a beetle that has destroyed millions of native ash trees; exotic fruit flies, including the European cherry fruit fly now threatening New York orchards; and the Asian citrus psyllid, which has infected citrus orchards in Florida, California and elsewhere with a devastating disease named citrus greening.

In the Mid-Atlantic, the one exotic invader that has materially affected summer gardening is the Asian tiger mosquito, which breeds in the smallest of containers and attacks during the day, unlike other mosquito species. May is the month to look for sources of standing water before adult tiger mosquitoes start breeding. They are capable of spreading viruses, but to me they are just a constant irritant that we could do without.

I fantasize that they will just disappear, a desire that is not entirely without foundation. This is what has happened on a Pacific reef island named Palmyra Atoll, where researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey set about removing 40,000 rats that had taken over the place and wrecked its ecology. As an unintended consequence of the rodent killing, the scientists noticed the complete disappearance of the Asian tiger mosquito, and realized that the mosquito had lost its main source of a blood meal.

What we need now, possibly, is a hornet that only kills rats, and all our troubles will be over. Not counting the coronavirus, of course, and the spotted lanternfly and the tick that gives us Lyme disease and the giant hogweed. Maybe I’ll just stay in bed.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Tip of the Week

Young sweet basil plants damaged by recent cold nights will not rebound satisfactorily. Sow fresh seeds in containers and thin as necessary. Keep seedlings moist but not wet.

— Adrian Higgins

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