Entomologists in Washington have confirmed the existence of a nest of Asian giant hornets, more fondly known as murder hornets. The nest is the first such breeding ground discovered in the United States, confirming fears that the invasive species could become established and severely threaten the country’s fragile bee population, as well as possibly attack people. State scientists plan to try destroying the nest this weekend.
The first U.S. sightings of the Asian giant hornet took place in Washington last winter. This year, scientists began discovering hornets in July. But it wasn’t until entomologists from the Washington State Department of Agriculture were able to trap and capture live hornets earlier this week that finding their nest was made possible. Three hornets in total were outfitted with radio trackers, and it only took a few hours before the nest was found, situated inside the cavity of a tree located on private property in Whatcom County. (The hornets actually prefer nests on the ground, but trees will do in a pinch.) Unfortunately, weather delayed the attempted destruction of the nest scheduled for Friday.
Asian giant hornets are the largest hornet known on earth, with queens able to reach over 2 inches in size. Their murderous moniker is inspired by the devastation they wreak on their prey. Though these insects can survive on tree sap, they love to munch on other colony-living insects, particularly honey bees. It’s thought that a single group of hornets can hollow out an entire beehive of thousands within hours, the only marker left behind being the heads of bees decapitated by the hornets’ relatively huge mandibles. Hornets are big on family, though, so they’ll also save the bee larva of the colony to take home as food for their young.
If that’s not bad enough, these hornets come equipped with enormous stingers filled with potent venom — and they’re not afraid to use them. Hornets don’t actively attack humans, and a single sting is more painful than anything else. But they can be fatal, particularly for people who are allergic to wasp stings. Estimates vary, but up to 50 people a year are thought to be killed by these creatures in Japan. By that same token, though, these hornets are also known to be a delicacy in the parts of Asia where they’re natively found.
The real danger from the Asian giant hornet isn’t to us, but our bees. The U.S. beekeeping industry has been facing crisis after crisis in recent years, leading to record losses of colonies over the winter. There isn’t a singular cause for these losses, but one crucial factor is thought to be the spread of a voracious arachnid parasite called the Varroa mite. The last thing the country’s bees need is another many-legged bug coming to decimate them.
According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the planned destruction of the nest will take place Saturday. The discovery of the nest seems to have been made in the nick of time, as the hornets were preparing to reach their “slaughter phase” soon — i.e. bee feeding time.