A few Asian giant hornets can destroy a honey bee hive in a matter of hours. The hornets enter a “slaughter phase” where they kill bees by decapitating them. They then defend the hive as their own, taking the brood to feed their own young (Washington State Department of Agriculture Photo).

A few Asian giant hornets can destroy a honey bee hive in a matter of hours. The hornets enter a “slaughter phase” where they kill bees by decapitating them. They then defend the hive as their own, taking the brood to feed their own young (Washington State Department of Agriculture Photo).

“Murder hornets” are back, but humans — and bees — face greater threats

The Washington State Department of Agriculture is providing trapping instructions.

What else could 2020 possibly have in store?

Last Friday, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) positively identified an Asian giant hornet for the first time this year in the United States, discovered dead on a roadway by a resident of Whatcom County — far north of Vashon — near the town of Custer.

Asian giant hornets are the world’s largest hornet and a predator of honey bees and other insects. A small group of Asian giant hornets can kill an entire honey bee hive in a matter of hours.

They also look really mean. Although not typically aggressive toward humans, Asian giant hornets can be dangerous — their sting may cause severe pain, swelling, and in rare cases, even death.

WSDA received the first report of sightings of Asian giant hornets last December from a resident near Blaine and soon learned of another hornet in the area that had been collected by Washington State University students. Combined, they were the first-ever confirmed sightings of Asian giant hornets in the United States.

Then an article published in the New York Times early last month about the insects, nicknamed “murder hornets” by some researchers due to their penchant for carnage and talent for decapitating bees, caught fire online, the latest grisly chapter in the story of a year that was already terrible almost beyond compare.

Since the presence of the hornets was confirmed in Washington late last year, state entomologists have been working with The United States Department of Agriculture to develop plans for trapping and eradicating them, fearing for the safety of honey bees and the hundreds of crops in Washington that depend on them for pollination.

WSDA plans to locate the hornets through trapping and public reporting of sightings, and the agency is now providing trapping instructions for citizen scientists who would like to build and place their own traps starting in July for Asian giant hornets on their property. Commercially available hornet and wasp traps will not catch Asian giant hornets as the holes are too small for Asian giant hornets to enter the traps.

“This is truly a collaborative effort,” Sven Spichiger, managing entomologist for WSDA’s Pest Program, said in a press release. “From federal and state partners to individual beekeepers and proactive community members, it will take all of us working together to locate and eradicate Asian giant hornets from our state.”

Barry Clemons, president of the Vashon Beekeeping Association, said he has done his own research into the prevalence of the Asian giant hornets, learning that honey bees can defend their hive from a single Asian giant hornet scout. But Clemons, a second-year beekeeper, said there are more pressing issues facing bees than the ghoulish, tiger-striped specter of a murder hornet — specifically, varroa mites, tiny but ferocious parasites that feed on honeybees and are capable of bringing death to entire hives. There’s also American foulbrood, a highly infectious bacterial disease so threatening that burning hives and equipment affected by it is the surest way to prevent the disease from spreading.

There’s always something new to learn, Clemons said, noting that his experience in beekeeping year to year will never be the same as other club members on the island.

“Beekeeping is always very, very local, and the behavior of the bees, the colony, what needs to be done, it’s all dependent upon what’s going on in the environment,” he said, emphasizing the importance of weather conditions and other factors such as what is blooming and what is not that can determine the success of a hive.

But bees, and the insect world at large, have even bigger problems, according to Paulina Barry, the Heron Wetland Education and Stewardship Intern for the Vashon Nature Center. In a recent conversation, Barry said the industrial use of pesticides in agriculture kills everything in its wake, including critical pollinators and benign native species.

“Industrial use of pesticides is probably the biggest threat to our native insects, and so what we can do is just regular people is to not use pesticides in our own garden,” Barry said, adding that while she is not an entomologist she feels confident enough that Asian giant hornet sightings are not the beginning of an invasion or public health risk.

Not that she wants to run into one anytime soon. Last month, while surveying Heron Meadow for everyday insect activity, Barry saw a gigantic, bright red, menacing-looking bug take a rest on top of a large bush, and thought immediately to the alarmist headlines she had read about the Asian giant hornets.

“It was so heavy that it was falling off of the leaves, and it would fly around in a small circle every now and again and then basically land in the same spot,” she said, snapping a photo and wondering if she was putting herself in danger trying to photograph it.

But searching the Internet later, Barry determined that what she had seen was not an Asian giant hornet: It was a sawfly, a member of the hornet family though completely harmless, spending most of its life as larvae inside of trees and only venturing out in flight as an adult for nine days. Barry said it’s not common to see a sawfly buzzing around.

“So most of us have never seen [sawflies], one, because we’re not paying attention to insects all that well, and two, they’re only out and about for nine days out of the year,” she said. “So actually I feel pretty lucky that I got to see it.”

Barry recommends that anyone planning to put out traps for hornets be good stewards of the outdoors, where the insect species native to this area live now. It’s their home, though with the way things are, now is a great time to see it for yourself.

“The more you learn about an insect, the more you learn they’re actually not that dangerous,” she said.

Visit agr.wa.gov/hornets to learn more about Asian giant hornets and the state’s trapping and eradication project.

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