If you’ve ever gone on a road trip, you probably have memories of bugs littering your windshield and front bumper. If you think about it for a minute, you may realize it’s been a while since this happened. While it may feel like a good thing since you don’t have to clean up the mess, it’s actually an ominous warning of changes to the environment.
The number of insects worldwide have been declining at a dramatic rate, and scientists believe modern-day agricultural practices are largely to blame.1 Those at the greatest risk are Lepidoptera — insects that include butterflies and moths, as well as Hymenoptera, which include bees, and Coleoptera, which include dung beetles.
The total mass of insects has been falling by nearly 2.5% each year. Researchers believe that more than 40% of all insect species are threatened with extinction in the next few decades. Habitat loss and agrochemical pollutants are two of the most significant factors causing this.
Scientists have also noted that population declines are not only significant in number, but also represent more restricted geographical distribution. A study released in 2017 monitored insect population over 27 years and found a 76% decline in flying insects in several of Germany’s protected areas.2
Giant Hornet Arrives in the US
While many insect populations are near extinction, the Asian Giant Hornet appears to be thriving. This insect, dubbed “the murder hornet,” was first sighted in British Columbia in August 2019. By December, they were reported south of the Canadian border in Washington.3
The combination of COVID-19 and the appearance of murder hornets has taken Twitter by storm.4 Memes comparing the hornets to COVID-19, or comments hoping the murder hornets will encourage people to stay inside, are popping up in Twitter. The attention may be a result of the hornet’s appearance, its painful sting or how small groups can decimate an entire honeybee hive.
The Asian Giant is the largest hornet species in the world,5 which a Washington State University bug expert calls “shockingly large.”6 It measures 1.5 to 2 inches long with a wingspan of up to 3 inches.7 This hornet has a distinctive look with orange and black stripes down the body, large pincers and a stinger that stays attached after stinging.
Its life cycle starts in early spring when the queen awakens from hibernation to search for a den in which to build her nest. Once built, worker hornets are sent to find food during summer and autumn.
The giant hornets have sharp, spiked mandibles, which they use to tear the head off honeybees and then transport the bodies back to the nest to feed their young. Ted McFall from Blaine, Washington, has first-hand knowledge of the devastation these hornets can wreak on a hive.
His story is told in The New York Times.8 In November 2019, he was checking his hives near Custer, Washington, when he spotted a large group of bee carcasses on the ground. Taking a closer look, he could see the heads had been torn off thousands of bees on the ground and inside the hive.
In December, 2.5 miles away from McFall’s property, another farmer found a dead hornet on his front porch. Jeff Kornelis suspected it could be a giant hornet and contacted the state, which confirmed it was an Asian Giant Hornet.
Don’t Try This at Home
Seriously, do not try this. Nathaniel “Coyote” Peterson is the host of Brave the Wild on Animal Planet. In November 2018 he searched for days in the forests of Japan to find a Giant Hornet to do what he does — get bitten or stung.
The hornet he found, as shown in this video, was more than 2 inches long and not at all happy about being caught. While they don’t normally attack humans,9 when cornered the hornets do defend themselves. Peterson discovered:10
“It sounds like an apache helicopter — you can definitely hear them before you see them. In Japan, they actually call them the great sparrow bee because when they’re flying, they look like a bird.”
The stingers on the hornets are long enough and strong enough to penetrate a beekeeper’s suit, as Conrad Bérubé from Canada discovered when he was assigned to exterminate a nest.11 Before letting the hornet sting him, Peterson expressed some concern the hornet may latch onto his arm with its pincers and sting him multiple times.
This would have been especially dangerous, as the insect injects venom that can be deadly. Multiple stings or anaphylactic shock from allergic reactions are how the insects kill up to 50 people a year in Japan.12
With the hornet grasped in a padded, tweezer-like instrument, Peterson placed the insect on his forearm and watched as it forced the stinger through his flesh. Thankfully, the hornet did not latch on, but crawled off after Peterson lost his grip on the insect.
His reaction was immediate and intense. He yelled as the hornet stung him,13 “Oh, man, wave of dizziness really quick. When the stinger went into my arm, I had like this wave, this wave came over me … The pain was immediate, immediately searing.”
Before being stung, Peterson said that the pain of the insect is reportedly a 2 on a pain scale of 1 to 4. However, from the personal experience of a man who has been stung and bitten by many creatures, Peterson said14 “I would definitely say it’s up there at a 4.”
The Goal Is to Track and Destroy
Since McFall’s hives were attacked in Washington State, scientists have mounted a full-scale hunt for the hornet’s nests. Should the insects become established, the hope of eradicating them would be lost. These invaders feed almost exclusively on honeybees and many beekeepers fear they could damage the currently sagging population of pollinators.
Chris Looney is an entomologist. He works at the Washington State Department of Agriculture and spoke to The New York Times, saying:15 “This is our window to keep it from establishing. If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”
Since only two were found before the insects were expected to hibernate, Looney believes it is impossible to determine how many may have made their home in Washington. Before the hornet was found in November 2019 in Washington, another hive was discovered on Vancouver Island.
The Island is located across a strait that scientists think is too wide for the hornets to have independently flown from the mainland.16 The hive on Vancouver Island was located and bug expert and beekeeper Bérubé was sent to exterminate it.
However, as he quickly discovered, their stingers could penetrate the bee suit and sweatpants he was wearing. His wrists and ankles were protected by Kevlar braces. During his approach to the nest at night he woke the hornets. He said the sting “… was like having red-hot thumb tacks being driven into my flesh.”
Bérubé managed to work through the pain to kill the nest and collect samples. He said this was the most painful sting he’d endured of the thousands he’s had at work.
U.S. scientists began preparing over the 2019 and 2020 winter months to eradicate the insects. However, the region is extensively wooded, making their task challenging. Giant Hornets may make their nests underground and the queens can fly many miles before settling on a spot. Over the coming months Looney anticipates hundreds of traps will be set to capture the worker hornets.
Since the activity in a hive generates heat, some trackers may use thermal imaging to locate and kill a hive. Looney said the plan for those that are trapped is to attach either a small streamer or radio-frequency device to monitor their path and follow it back to the hive. The size and strength of the hornet enables them to handle the extra weight of these devices while flying.
What You Need to Know About the Giant Hornet
The murder hornet is the largest hornet species in the world,17 and identified by the size, yellow and black stripes along the body and large, shark-teeth like mouth pincers. Washington State University18 and the Washington Department of Agriculture19 have identified several more facts about the hornet:
• Its venom is strong — The sting delivers a neurotoxin that is greater than the amount a honeybee can inject, and the bee can sting multiple times.
• It can kill entire honeybee colonies — A single Giant Hornet can kill dozens of honeybees in minutes. Just 30 hornets can destroy a hive numbering up to 30,000 in only four hours. They use their mouth pincers to tear the head off the honeybee.
• Its lifecycle includes a “slaughter phase” — The queen comes out of hibernation in April, feeding on plant sap and fruit while locating a suitable nest. During the summer and fall months the hornets are most aggressive searching for protein to feed the next generation. They may enter a “slaughter phase” when they kill all the adult honeybees, defend the hive as theirs and take the honeybee young to feed their own.
• Don’t approach it; just report it — Experts warn you should not try to kill a hive or approach a hornet. The sting is venomous and if you are allergic and don’t know it, one sting can be fatal. Instead, get away and report it, so the hive can be killed by people wearing proper protective gear.
You can report a hive or hornet one of three ways: Using an online form, email PestProgram@agr.wa.gov or call 1-800-443-6684. Washington State Department of Agriculture asks you to include your contact information, location and date of the sighting, description and photograph (if you have one) and the direction the hornet was flying.
Our Food Supply Depends on Honeybees
Much of the world’s food supply depends on pollination, and pollination depends on insects. Insects do everything from providing food to cleaning up waste. National Geographic reports insects generate $57 billion a year to the U.S. economy.20
Without insects that consume waste and return nutrients into the soil, the smell of decay would be overwhelming. Insects produce food, such as honey, pollinate plants, manufacture silk and provide natural biological control of parasites and predators.21
The BBC22 reports the population of pollinators has been falling in the past decades. From 1947 to 2017 the number of honeybee colonies has dropped more than 50% from 6 million to 2.5 million. In the winter of 2018 to 2019, the colonies suffered another 40% loss, which represents the largest so far.
Although murder hornets are not an immediate threat to human life, if they should become established, they will be a significant threat to the honeybee population and therefore the food supply. They currently prefer low altitude forest and mountain areas. Remember, if you spot an insect you believe may be a hornet, do not try to catch it or approach it, but report your sighting.