Watch out, there might be murder hornets about.
As if 2020 couldn't get much more treacherous, scientists are now fretting that parts of North America could soon be hit with a surge of so-called "murder hornets," a giant hornet species native to Asia with a potentially deadly sting.
The first-ever verified sightings of the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) in the US came from Blaine and Bellingham in Washington State in December last year, while there were reports in Canada from two locations in British Columbia around the fall of 2019, too. Now, with spring well on its way and the wasps’ queens soon to be emerging from hibernation, scientists are concerned the US could see many more reports of the invasive species over the coming summer and early fall.
How do you know if you’ve encountered a murder hornet? Well, chances are, you’ll know when you see one. At around 5 centimeters (2 inches) long, they are the largest species of hornet in the world, with a distinctive orange-colored head and a chunky striped abdomen.
“They’re like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face,” Susan Cobey, bee breeder with Washington State University’s Department of Entomology (WSE), said in a recent statement.
“It’s a shockingly large hornet,” added Todd Murray, WSU Extension entomologist and invasive species specialist.
The species is native to the forests and low mountains of eastern and southeast Asia. While scientists don't know how the giant hornets ended up in North America, it’s thought they might have snuck in through international cargo, either intentionally or by accident.
Their venom is laced with a potent neurotoxin that can pack a mean punch, often resulting in a large, throbbing, and painful sting. Even if you're not allergic, multiple stings can kill a human. The hornet is thought to kill around 30 to 50 people each year in Japan alone, with most victims dying from anaphylaxis, a sudden heart attack, or multiple organ failure.
But it isn’t just humans that can suffer at the hands of the murder hornet. The species is also a significant predator of honeybees and have been known to decimate entire hives. Some species of honeybees in Asia appear to have developed a defense mechanism against the murder hornet that involves an en-masse vibration of wings to warm up the hive and drive out the invader. However, it’s uncertain whether honeybees in North America and Europe have any real defense against the giant wasps.
“A few hornets can destroy a hive in a matter of hours,” said the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).
“The hornets enter a ‘slaughter phase’ where they kill bees by decapitating them. They then defend the hive as their own, taking the brood to feed their own young."
If you see an Asian giant hornet or have seen evidence of a hive attack in Washington state, WSDA officials want you to report the sighting so they can keep tabs on the situation (you can report them here). If you’re not a resident of Washington State but wish to report a suspected Asian giant hornet sighting, then you can contact your state's department of agriculture.
“Don’t try to take them out yourself if you see them,” said WSDA entomologist Chris Looney. “If you get into them, run away, then call us! It is really important for us to know of every sighting, if we’re going to have any hope of eradication.”