Murder hornets: The predatory Asian insects threatening to decimate US honey bees

Asian giant hornets may soon gain ground and destroy American honey bee populations if left unchecked

Chris Riotta
New York
Tuesday 12 May 2020 13:30 BST
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A deadly and massive hornet known in Asia as the “murder hornet” has arrived in the United States and was threatening extensive harm to the country's already-declining honey bee population, according to new research.

The Asian giant hornet was capable of destroying entire beehives in a matter of hours during its “slaughter phase” — a process in which the hornet decapitates honeybees, takes over a hive and feeds its offspring with the thoraxes it collects from its victims. It’s gained the nickname murder hornet in countries like Japan, where it was known to kill a reported 50 people a year.

But the hornet has never appeared in the US until December, researchers said. Washington State’s Department of Agriculture has since reported at least four verified sightings of the murder hornets, while Canadian officials in British Columbia also reported two sightings.

Entomologists warned the predatory insects could soon multiply across the country, decimating bee populations critical for food production and farm life in America.

“This is our window to keep it from establishing”, Chris Looney, entomologist Washington State’s Department of Agriculture, told the New York Times in a report published on Saturday. “If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”

The murder hornets cause their most harm after awakening from winter hibernation during the late summer and early fall, “when they are on the hunt for sources of protein to raise next year’s queens”, according to Seth Truscott, a researcher at Washington State University’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences.

“They attack honey bee hives, killing adult bees and devouring bee larvae and pupae, while aggressively defending the occupied colony," he told WSU’s Insider. “Their stings are big and painful, with a potent neurotoxin. Multiple stings can kill humans, even if they are not allergic."

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It remains unclear how the murder hornets arrived in the US and multiple parts of British Columbia. Researchers said the distance between the hornets found in Washington and those discovered in British Columbia was too far for them to have originated in the same hive.

However, insects have been known to transport themselves through international trade, occasionally slipping through a country’s inspection processes. Research has not yet confirmed how the hornets made their way to the US.

State officials have encouraged people who believe they spotted any signs of the predatory insects to contact their local department of agriculture.

“Don’t try to take them out yourself if you see them,” Mr Looney told the New York Times. “If you get into them, run away, then call us! It is really important for us to know of every sighting, if we're going to have any hope of eradication."

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