After months of hunting, researchers in the US have finally managed to get their hands on a “murder hornet”, a supersized invasive species that’s recently been spotted in North America.
The thumb-sized specimen was caught by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) near Birch Bay in Whatcom County. After setting up over 1,300 traps in the state, scientists were finally rewarded with a catch on July 14. The dead individual was taken back to the lab and scientists managed to verify their suspicions that this was a so-called ”murder hornet”, scientifically known as an Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia).
“This is encouraging because it means we know that the traps work,” Sven Spichiger, a managing entomologist for the WSDA, said in a statement. “But it also means we have work to do.”
Speaking at a virtual press conference, Spichiger said they’re not sure whether they caught a worker or a queen based on its size, although he and his colleagues suspect it’s a worker. They hope to clear up this confusion by sending the specimen off to a lab where it will be dissected.
Now the race is on to find and destroy the nest from which this individual came from. They hope to do this before mid-September when the colony would begin creating new reproducing queens and drones.
The Asian giant hornet is native to parts of East Asia, South Asia, Mainland Southeast Asia, and a small patch of the Russian Far East. Measuring around 5 centimeters (2 inches) in length, they are the largest species of hornet in the world and can be easily identified thanks to their distinctive orange-colored head and a chunky striped abdomen.
It’s unclear how they arrived in North America, but the situation first came to light after the discovery of an Asian giant hornet nest in British Columbia back in September 2019. A few months on, a resident in Washington State handed over a specimen to the WSDA. Authorities have since received five more confirmed sightings of the wasps, although it's uncertain how many might be out there.
Their presence in North America is bad news for a number of reasons. As their nickname suggests, these creatures are pretty dangerous beasts. Their venom is laced with a potent neurotoxin that can result in a large and painful sting. Even if you're not allergic, a human can die from multiple stings. The hornet is thought to kill around 30 to 50 people each year in Japan, a country where they are relatively common, with most victims dying from anaphylaxis, a sudden heart attack, or multiple organ failure. However, the overall risk to humans in the US and Canada is said to be pretty low.
Asian giant hornets are also an invasive species that could spell problems for native species, notably the local honey bee population. Armed with their scissor-like mandibles, Asian giant hornets are a significant predator of honeybees and have been known to decimate entire hives.
“A few hornets can destroy a hive in a matter of hours,” said the 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."