When Ashley Terrill encountered a hornet in her home in McLean, Va., this past Saturday, she feared it was a “murder hornet,” the large, invasive and sometimes killer stinging insect from Asia that has raided Washington state.
“It appeared similar in size and markings,” said Terrill. “The discovery seemed uncanny. I had just read about the arrival of the Asian giant hornet in the Pacific Northwest the same day I found this giant hornet in my house.”
Terrill reported the hornet to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which identified it as a European hornet, not the Asian giant hornet.
Terrill’s European hornet was unusually large because it was probably a queen, according to Scott Famous, local beekeeper and queen breeder, who examined the specimen. “She was probably looking for a place to start a new colony,” he said.
With the weather warming up and sightings of hornets sure to swell, I thought it would be useful to explore how the hornets common to the D.C. region differ from the Asian giant — or “murder” — hornet making news.
As far as anyone knows, the Asian giant hornet has not yet appeared in the Mid-Atlantic region. But the European hornet has been in the eastern United States since the late 1800s.
How can you tell the two apart? The Asian giant hornet, about 1½ to two inches long, is substantially larger than the European hornet, which tends to be a little over an inch long, as shown in the chart below. The Asian giant hornet has a head that is almost entirely yellow compared with the European hornet, which has a reddish-brown head that transitions to yellow around the face.
The Asian giant hornet is capable of destroying entire bee colonies and inflicting terrible stings with its quarter-inch stinger. The stinger is so powerful it can penetrate beekeeper suits. And the sensation of being stung is compared to a searing-hot thumbtack piercing the skin.
Around now is the time to be on the lookout for the emergence of hornets around the region, especially when the pattern switches to a warmer one in another week.
“Hornets tend to become active when the temperature reaches the upper 70s,” Famous said. “They prefer hotter weather much more so than bees and smaller wasps, probably because they’re bigger and have a bigger mass to preheat for flight.”
European hornets aren’t the only variety Mid-Atlantic residents contend with. Famous said baldfaced hornets are most common in the region. “You can see their gray, bell-shaped paper nests hanging in trees and bushes all over the area,” he said.
They’re about the same size as European hornets (and thus smaller than Asian giant hornets) and more black than yellow. And, as many of us know from firsthand experience, they’re aggressive when disturbed.
But Famous doesn’t have issues with European or baldfaced hornets raiding his beehives. “The European hornets typically snoop around the beehives, one at a time, in midsummer, looking to snatch a bee or two if they can. They’re a nonissue,” he said. “Yellow jackets create problems for the hives, but the Asian giant hornets pose a whole different class of threat.”
Regarding Asian hornets, Famous said: “They send out single scouts to investigate honeybee colonies. They enter, check it out, and if they like what they find, they go back to their nest, gather reinforcements and return en masse to rob, pillage and plunder everything in the colony. We better eradicate them swiftly and thoroughly, so we don’t have to deal with them as a regular threat to our honeybee colonies."
Jonathan Beamon has exterminated wasp and hornet nests for decades in North Carolina. He claims to have found dozens of nests built by enormous yellow hornets he calls hybrid Japanese hornets. According to N.C. State University’s Entomology Extension, however, the hornets Beamon found are most likely European hornets.
“Asian giant hornets are not an issue for us at this time and not likely to be one in the near future barring some accidental introduction (as was likely the case in Washington),” an article on the university’s entomology websites states. “However, everyone needs to be aware that we have a resident hornet species that, at first glance, appears similar to the Asian giant hornet.”
But Beamon is adamant he has encountered Asian hybrid hornets.
Over many years of eradicating hornets, Beamon said he was only stung once by a giant yellow hornet. He remarked, “It felt like I was shot in the leg, and the sting left a welt for a month.”
Beamon also noted the European hornet nests he exterminated had a putrid smell, like rotting flesh. European and Asian hornets are protein eaters, and they bring back partially chewed “meatballs” to feed to their young. “It’s the worst smell imaginable,” he said. “But paper nests from baldfaced hornets don’t have a bad smell.”
Finally, let’s discuss cicada killers, which are also common in the Mid-Atlantic. Cicada killers are giant solitary wasps that resemble European and Asian hornets. They received their name for what they do best — killing cicadas. And they do it in a slow, gruesome manner.
First, cicada killers locate and sting a cicada to paralyze it. Then the paralyzed cicada is transported to a nest and placed with the wasp’s eggs. When the eggs hatch after one or two days, the larvae begin to feed upon the cicada. And the cicada remains alive while serving as the larva’s food source for about two weeks. Finally, the larvae spins a cocoon to transform into an adult wasp.
Cicada killers generally don’t bother humans. The females focus on catching cicadas, and the males focus on competing against one another for pecking order to mate. They are quite harmless, unless you’re a cicada, of course.
Many of us have hornet stories. My most memorable story was when I was trimming bushes in my front yard and didn’t notice a large baldfaced hornet nest hidden inside of a bush. The stings were quite painful as the hornets chased me into the house. Since then, I always check each bush or tree very carefully before trimming.
Let us know if you have any hornet stories or encounters.