Murder hornets invade Washington — no kidding

AS if COVID-19 isn’t bad enough, another Asian threat has shown up in the United States, where it’s threatening to destroy the honey bees.

It’s a big, aggressive insect, widely known as the ‘murder hornet’ and its  endemic to the Japanese islands, where it is known as the “great sparrow bee.”

But sightings of it in Washington, Los Angeles and other parts of the US  have prompted fears that the vicious insect could establish itself in the US and devastate bee populations.

In Japan – where they kill an average 50 people a year – their diet consists mainly of  insects, including crop pests, and that’s why they are regarded as beneficial. 

However, in many Japanese mountain villages, fried hornets are considered a delicacy. 

A few days ago, beekeeper Ted McFall, of Custer, Washington, found a pile of honeybee carcasses on the ground. 

He looked closer to find many thousands of bees with their heads torn from their bodies.

With queens that can grow to 5cm, Asian giant hornets can use mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins to wipe out a honeybee hive in a matter of hours, decapitating the bees and flying away with the thoraxes to feed their young. 

For larger targets, the hornet’s potent venom and stinger — long enough to puncture a beekeeping suit — make for an excruciating combination that victims have likened to hot metal driving into their skin.

The first sightings of the hornets were made a few kilometres from the McCall property and scientists have since embarked on a full-scale hunt for them, worried that the invaders could wipe out bee populations and establish such a deep presence that future eradication could be impossible.

“This is our window to keep it from establishing,” entomologist Dr Chris Looney of the Washington State Department of Agriculture said. 

“If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”

Beyond its size, the hornet has a colourful and very distinctive look.

Its cartoon-like fierce face features teardrop eyes like Spiderman, orange and black stripes that extend down its body like a tiger, and broad, wispy wings like a small dragonfly.

Dr. Looney said it was immediately clear that the state faced a serious problem, but with only two insects in hand it was nearly impossible to determine how much the hornet had already made itself at home.

Adding to the uncertainty — and mystery — were some other discoveries of the Asian giant hornet across the border in Canada.

In November, a single hornet was seen in White Rock, British Columbia, some 16km from the discoveries in Washington State and experts say it was likely too far for the hornets to be part of the same colony. 

Even earlier, there had been a hive discovered on Vancouver Island, across a strait that probably was too wide for a hornet to have crossed from the mainland.

The ‘Murder Hornet’ dwarfs a cicada.

Crews were able to track down the hive on Vancouver Island. 

Conrad Bérubé, a local beekeeper and entomologist, was assigned to exterminate it.

He set out at night, when the hornets would be in their nest. 

He put on shorts and thick sweatpants, then his bee suit and donned Kevlar braces on his ankles and wrists.

But as he approached the hive, he said, the rustling of the brush and the shine of his torch awakened the colony. 

Before he had a chance to douse the nest with carbon dioxide, he felt the first searing stabs in his leg — through the bee suit and underlying sweatpants.

“It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh,” he said. 

He ended up getting stung at least seven times, some of the stings drawing blood.

He still managed to eradicate the nest and collect samples, but the next day, his legs were aching, as if he had the flu. 

Of the thousands of times he has been stung in his lifetime of work, he said, the Asian giant hornet stings were by far the most painful.

Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan, said the species had earned the “murder hornet” nickname there because its aggressive group attacks can expose victims to doses of toxic venom equivalent to that of a venomous snake; a series of stings can be fatal.

In a region with extensive wooded habitats for hornets to establish homes, the task of finding and eliminating them is daunting.

The wooded landscapes and mild, wet climate of western Washington State makes for an ideal location for the hornets to spread.

In the coming months, Dr Looney said, he and others will place hundreds of traps in an effort to locate nests.

The buzz of activity inside a nest of Asian giant hornets can keep the inside temperature up to 30C, so the trackers are also using thermal imaging to examine the forest floors. Later, they may also try other advanced tools that could track the signature hum the hornets make in flight.

If a hornet does get caught in a trap, Dr Looney said, there are plans to possibly use radio-frequency identification tags to monitor where it goes — or simply attach a small streamer and then follow the hornet as it returns to its nest.

While most bees would be unable to fly with a disruptive marker attached, that is not the case with the Asian giant hornet. 

It is big and strong enough to handle the extra load.

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