So far, the plot of 2020 feels like it’s been decided by a large, invisible hand spinning a chaos wheel. The year kicked off with continent-engulfing fires, followed by a global pandemic that has not yet been contained. What fresh hell could possibly come next? Hmmm, well, maybe a scourge of “murder hornets,” that sounds about right. These invasive, predatory insects recently arrived in the United States; they delight in decapitating bees and their stings feel like “hot metal driving into [the] skin,” per the New York Times. Okay!!!
According to the Times, Asian giant hornets — which, in hornet terms, truly are huge, some queens growing up to two inches long, with large, armored-looking helmet heads and sharp, spiky mandibles — kill as many as 50 people annually in Japan, although they prefer to prey on bees. According to Vox, “murder hornets” can rip through about 40 honeybees per minute, tearing off their heads and spiriting away the thoraxes to feed their young.
Native to South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, they hadn’t been spotted in the United States before late 2019, when strange reports began tricking in from northwestern Washington. In November, one beekeeper near Custer found his hives reduced to a pile of bee heads, detached from their bee bodies. Then, the following month, the state confirmed the presence of a dead “murder hornet” a few miles north of those devastated hives. Shortly thereafter, another local beekeeper found a giant hornet corpse, but winter made it impossible to tell how deeply the hornets had entrenched themselves.
“This is our window to keep it from establishing,” said Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, told the Times. “If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”
According to the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture — Asian giant hornets having been spotted just over the border, in Canada, in August 2019 — “the hornets are not usually interested in humans, pets, or livestock,” although “multiple stings can kill humans, even if they are not allergic.” The concern is not so much for people as for the bees, which we know are already dying at alarming rates. Still, the hornets’ venomous, knife-y stingers can reportedly penetrate bee suits, and as one Vancouver Island beekeeper and entomologist told the Times, their searing jabs feel “like having red-hot thumbtacks … driven into [one’s] flesh.”
Scientists are busy setting traps for these winged terrors, but in the meantime, Looney urges: “Don’t try to take them out yourself if you see them. If you get into them, run away, then call us!” Or report the sighting here.