Story at a glance
- The "Murder Hornets" are more commonly known as the Asian giant hornet.
- They only sting in response to their nests being disturbed.
As if the U.S. didn’t have enough to deal with, reports of a new insect, colloquially named the “murder hornet,” have been buzzing while the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
The New York Times broke this story, saying that the hornet traveled across the Pacific from Japan to make its way stateside and first appeared in Washington. It was frighteningly described as being about 45 millimeters, or 1.7 inches in length, having large mandibles that can decapitate bee species, and armed with strong venom delivered through a long stinger that, in the past, have resulted in the death of up to 50 people a year.
Although most Americans know it now as the “murder hornet,” Amy Vu, the Extension Coordinator for the Honey Bee Research Laboratory at the University of Florida’s Department of Entomology and Nematology, says researchers do not use that moniker.
“We do not call them ‘murder hornets.’ We are not sure where that name came from, and never heard of them being called that until the New York Times article came out,” Vu explained.
The scientific name for the species that was found in Washington is Vespa mandarinia, and it is commonly referred to as the Asian giant hornet.
The hornets are thought to have arrived in the U.S. through transport with personal or commercial goods, but it remains a mystery. Still, the only sightings are in Blaine, Wash., Vu noted. Vespa mandarinia is most commonly confused with other similar insects like bald faced hornets, European hornets, cicada killers and yellow jackets.
Vu explained that scientists aren’t exactly sure of the environmental impact the hornets may have in North American ecosystems, but she did note, however, that they aren’t generally interested in humans or large animals, including pets. They mainly hunt insects for food and only sting as a defense mechanism if their nest is disturbed.
As for the greater environmental impacts of their arrival, Vu says that they are unknown.
“It may be possible that someone has assessed the ecological impacts of the hornet somewhere in Asia, but there are unknown impacts besides any threats to humans or honey bee health.”
Vu says the Asian giant hornet may pose a threat to honey bees because the large insects feed on honey bees and use honey bees, specifically known as Apis mellifera, by feeding on the adult and immature honey bees as a protein source. This is problematic for honey bee colonies, which are already facing declines.
As far as human health, Vu states that humans interacting with any stinging insect can lead to a medical issue, regardless of the species.
“People react to stings very differently. We encourage those allergic to stinging insects to stay away from them as much as possible,” she explained.
Noting that the Washington State Department of Agriculture, as well as the agriculture department of every other state, is monitoring the hornet’s movements, Vu says that if individuals think they have found an unidentifiable insect of concern, they can submit a photo or specimen sample to their state’s Department of Agriculture.
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