Murder Hornets Have Landed in the U.S. — Should We Be Worried?

By Jemma BramsonLast Updated Dec 18, 2020 3:51:55 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: KENPEI/Wikipedia

2020 was a year when our collective stress levels shot through the stratosphere. Record unemployment numbers and plummeting oil prices added to the chaos and turmoil disrupting American lives on just about every level. To top things off, the year saw us facing a bizarre entomological threat that seemed appropriately suited to the poorly written sci-fi tale that 2020 was becoming: Enter the murder hornet.

The name alone is enough to strike fear into the hearts of the insect-phobic among us, and the last thing anyone needs is to worry about an invasion of mutant giant hornets. The name alone is terrifying, but is that all just a part of media-driven marketing — and are these creatures really as dangerous as their ferocious moniker would have us believe? Are these monster bees actually even murderous? We've got the need-to-know buzz on murder hornets in the United States.

What in the World Is a Murder Hornet?

The Asian giant hornet, also known (terrifyingly) as the murder hornet, is the world’s largest hornet. These insects can grow to 2 inches or longer and have 3-inch wingspans. Native to temperate and tropical locations throughout eastern and southern Asia, they prefer to live in low mountainous and forested areas where they can make their nests in the ground by either digging holes or taking over abandoned rodent nests.

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Photo Courtesy: Yasunori Koide/Wikipedia

With alternating orange and black stripes, they have a very distinct look that's relatively easy to identify. They also make an intense buzzing sound that's noticeably intimidating. Those are frightening features, to be sure, but an even larger part of what makes these hornets so scary is the power of their sting. Their stingers are a quarter-inch long and are capable of piercing normal beekeeping suits. If the hornets work as a team — and sometimes they do — their stings could potentially kill an adult. Japan experiences as many as 50 deaths a year due to these hornets.

The venom of the giant hornet is especially potent. Getting stung by a single hornet can cause flu-like symptoms on top of intense, searing pain and swelling that can last for several days and interfere with sleep. Multiple stings could lead to anaphylactic shock, which requires quick emergency medical assistance and hospitalization in some cases, depending on the severity of the reaction.

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It’s not clear how this hornet species originally made the trip to North America — entomologists speculate that they may have accidentally gotten trapped in shipping containers sent from one of the countries they're native to — but these insects have been spotted in some parts of western Canada in the past few years. In the fall of 2019, the first recorded murder hornet sighting in the United States occurred in Washington State, near the border of Canada.

Are Murder Hornets Really Murderous?

With a name like "murder hornet," it’s not a stretch to wonder if these are actual killer bugs. When they were first discovered, the internet was abuzz with memes, rumors and wild speculation about what led to such a nickname for these bugs. Considering how easy it is to whip the internet into a frenzy, it’s important to focus on what experts have to say before panicking. So, how concerned should we really be about an invasion of murder hornets?

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Photo Courtesy: Joe Carey/Wikipedia

From the outset, many experts expressed displeasure that the media and internet latched onto the term "murder hornet." The term didn’t exist until stories about the bugs' appearance began proliferating online, and scientists have encouraged people to avoid using the inflammatory nickname and stick to calling them giant hornets. While it's true the bugs have brutal stings and the frightening ability to spray venom, scientists scoff at the idea that the insects are deliberately homicidal — towards humans, at least. These insects do have the potential for destruction and death, but that's primarily related to another species of bee.

Do the Hornets Pose a Threat to Honeybees?

While the idea of death by hornet stings is certainly the stuff of nightmares, honeybees actually have a lot more to fear than the average human. The typical Asian giant hornet is five times the size of a European honeybee, and it only takes a small number of the giant hornets to wipe out entire colonies of honeybees. In fact, a single Asian giant hornet can kill more than 40 honey bees in about a minute. Multiply that number by whole hives of giant hornets, and the entire U.S. honeybee population could be decimated in a matter of months.

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Photo Courtesy: Takahashi/Wikipedia

Honeybees in the U.S. are already in danger due to climate change and the widespread use of pesticides. If drastic measures aren’t taken to eliminate these hornets as soon as they are discovered in an area, the results could be catastrophic for American honeybees — unless they learn quickly from their Japanese cousins.

Japanese honeybees have evolved to deal with the danger the giant hornets pose. When they spot an Asian giant hornet surveying the area for beehives, they immediately go on the offensive. Dozens of bees work together to swarm the hornet, landing on it and beating their wings rapidly to raise the temperature high enough to kill the invader. Hopefully, U.S. honeybees will learn the same tricks and be able to defend their hives.

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What to Do If You See a Hornet

Although they aren't yet spreading far across the United States, the potential does exist for the giant hornets to attempt to move (or accidentally get transported) into other areas of the country. If you spot one, you shouldn’t attempt to do anything yourself. Experts are tracking hornet sightings in Washington to determine how widespread the problem is becoming. Nearly all the reported deaths in Japan occurred because people disturbed hornet nests. Report the sighting, but do not interact with the hornet intentionally. Get familiar with what the nests look like — some have been discovered in Washington — so you know what to avoid.

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Photo Courtesy: KENPEI/Wikipedia

Once you file a report, scientists will work to track down the hive. They have several different methods of dealing with the hornets. If they don’t find the hive quickly, they may try to capture a single hornet, place a tracker on it and then use the data they gather from the tracker to follow the bug back to its hive. Once a hive has been identified, scientists use a combination of poison and fire to exterminate the hornets. It may sound harsh, but the survival of the American honeybee population is at stake.

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How Concerned Should We Really Be?

The name "murder hornet" certainly sounds scary, and you should definitely avoid interaction with this or any other type of hornet, but the U.S. is not currently experiencing a full-on takeover by this invasive species. Scientists in Washington are vigilantly searching for hives to eliminate the hornets.

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Photo Courtesy: Gary Alpert/Wikipedia

It’s always important to pay attention to the news to remain informed, but it’s also important to scratch beneath the surface to confirm the facts before letting deliberately terrifying news keep you up at night. Researchers continue to emphasize that the insects have not been spreading drastically across the country, and that "the public doesn't need to be worried" because the bugs typically only attack people when their nests are disturbed. Murder hornets won’t be coming for us anytime soon.

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