Vespid-19: the Asian giant hornet in North America
How I wish I could claim credit for the phrase Vespid-19. But, alas, I cannot. It was suggested to me by Nancy Partlow of OlyPollinators and it perfectly describes the current situation. An exotic vespid wasp, Vespa mandarinia, was first discovered in the Pacific Northwest in late 2019 and has since spread further and faster than originally anticipated. The phrase and the events bear a certain familiarity, no?
But there it ends. Although I wrote about these creatures briefly last fall, I wanted to spend a few minutes trying to restore reason and good judgment into the narrative.
What is murder?
Let’s start with the nickname “murder hornet.” Murder is a human word for a human deed. The word implies evil-doing with premeditation. Since murder is something to be reviled, the word raises fear.
But wait! The Asian giant hornet is just a bug. And when it kills things—or entire hives of things—it’s just doing what good moms do: providing for its young. Feeding the young is exceptionally common in the animal kingdom. Birds do it, mammals do it, and even bugs do it. Even though moms of social animals like wasps and honey bees have help in the form of non-reproductive workers, it amounts to the same thing. Those marauding hornets are just tripping to the local food bank for supplies.
Doing the most damage
So when I read that people all over the country were stocking up on insecticide to protect themselves from a pest they will probably never see in their entire lives, I began to worry. How many innocent bugs will die in the process? And how many vitally important pollinators? Who can do more damage, Asian giant hornets or humans armed with cans of bug spray?
One report said people were confusing cicada killers, European hornets, yellowjackets, and even bumble bees with Asian giant hornets. Bumble bees? Can you imagine spraying bumble bees to save your honey bees from hornets? How is that a win for pollinators?
What many people don’t realize is that bees, wasps, and hornets are all closely related. Any pesticide that kills one will most likely kill the others, so there is no easy way to exterminate just one in the group. Separating the species is usually done in more complex ways, such as mechanical trapping or using scent lures that are attractive to certain species.
Fearing the obscure
In addition, fear of the hornets is totally out of line. So far this year, one Asian giant hornet has been found near Custer, Washington and another in Langley, B.C. Yes, this is a greater spread than entomologists predicted for the first year, but the numbers are extremely low. Although others will certainly be found, the incidence is not high enough to warrant killing everything that flies.
Beekeepers have a greater risk of hornet problems than others, yet most of the panicked public are not beekeepers but people who fear getting stung. Yes, the hornet is capable of inflicting a powerful sting, but they are not out to “murder” humans or their pets. In fact, you have no idea how uninteresting you are.
To a hornet, you are simply an impediment, something to be dealt with like a roadblock. The easiest thing for them to do is avoid you—fly around—which they will do if you leave them alone. Your biggest risk of stings comes from annoying or interfering with them. But if you never see one in your entire life—which is likely—you have an extremely small chance of getting stung by one.
Save the pollinators
I go back to the same thing every time. If you want to save the bees, plant flowers, conserve pollinator habitat, and eschew the poisons and ‘cides. As far as Asian giant hornets are concerned, report them if you see them but otherwise leave them alone.
Honey Bee Suite