Murder Hornets Have Landed in the U.S. — But Don’t Panic Yet

By Jemma Bramson
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Photo Courtesy: KENPEI/Wikipedia

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and made it obvious we faced a deadly threat, our collective stress levels shot through the stratosphere. Record unemployment numbers and plummeting oil prices added to the chaos and turmoil disrupting every American life. Enter the murder hornet to shake things up even further.

After months of quarantine and fear, the last thing anyone needs is to worry about an invasion of mutant giant hornets. Obviously, the name is terrifying, but are these creatures really as dangerous as the name would have us all believe? Are these monster bees actually murderous, or is their name blown completely out of proportion? Here’s all the buzz you need to know about murder hornets in the U.S.

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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. "Yikes!" is actually a bit of an understatement. These hornets are native to temperate and tropical locations throughout eastern and southern Asia, and 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 — very scary — look that is pretty easy to identify. They also make an intense buzzing sound that you are sure to notice. Those are frightening elements, but part of what makes these hornets so scary is the power of their sting. Their stingers are a quarter of an inch long and 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. The pain 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.

It’s not clear how this hornet species originally made the trip to North America, but these insects have been spotted in some parts of western Canada in the past few years. In the fall of 2019, the first murder hornet sighting occurred in Washington state, near the border of Canada.

Are Murder Hornets Really Murderous?

With a name like murder hornet, it’s not surprising the internet is abuzz with fear, rumors and wild speculation. Some recent memes have even poked fun at the growing hysteria by featuring a showdown between the hornets and COVID-19. 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 several weeks ago, and scientists are encouraging people to avoid using the inflammatory nickname and stick to calling them giant hornets. They scoff at the idea that the insects are deliberately homicidal.

Do the Hornets Pose a Threat to Honey Bees?

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

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Photo Courtesy: Takahashi/Wikipedia

Honey bees in the U.S. are already endangered 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 honey bees — unless they learn quickly from their Japanese cousins.

Japanese honey bees have evolved to deal with the danger. 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. They land on it and beat their wings rapidly to raise the temperature high enough to kill it. Hopefully, the European honey bees in America will learn the same tricks and be able to defend their hives.

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What Should I Do if I See a Murder Hornet?

Unfortunately, spotting these giant hornets in Washington probably means the insects will attempt to move (or be accidentally transported) into other parts of the United States. If you spot one, you shouldn’t attempt to do anything yourself. Experts are tracking hornet sightings in Washington state 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.

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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 these monster hornets. If they don’t find the hive quickly, they will try to capture a single hornet, place a tracker on it and then follow it 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 honey bee population is at stake.

How Concerned Should I 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 state 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. Murder hornets won’t be coming for us anytime soon.