It looked like a scene out of a sci-fi horror film, or perhaps (more innocently) a group of friends trying on Halloween costumes.
It was neither, but there were, indeed, killers involved – killers of honeybees.
Wearing thick, protective suits, crews in Washington State worked Saturday (Oct. 24) to destroy the first nest of Asian giant hornets – an insect dubbed ‘murder hornet’ by U.S. media – discovered in the United States. The nest was found across the border in Blaine, Wash., directly adjacent to South Surrey.
Crews vacuumed the invasive insects from the cavity of a tree into large canisters. The suits prevented the hornets’ six-millimetre-long stingers from hurting the workers, who also wore face shields to protect themselves against venom in the hornets’ spit.
British Columbia’s top apiculturist Paul van Westendrop says while the hornets have been given a frightening moniker, there is little to fear for residents living in South Surrey and White Rock.
“Murder hornet is a U.S.-invented term. We are quite resentful that they even brought it in because it has created this excitement in the general population about murder hornets and of course it has a bit of a Hollywood quality to that term. While in reality, these hornets don’t behave that way,” van Westendrop said.
The New York Times was seemingly the first western news organizations to call them “murder hornets,” adding that the name came from “some in Japan.” While the hornets aren’t outwardly aggressive towards people, they can co-ordinate attacks on honeybees, wiping out an entire colony by decapitating their prey. The hornets pose the biggest threat to farmers who depend on honeybees to pollinate their crops.
“In the States, with the slightly more sensational titles, they call it the slaughter phase because, of course, the hornets do that in a very unpleasant way,” van Westendrop said.
“We call it a raiding party. It’s a raiding affair. We tend to be a bit less sensational and a bit more modest in the way we describe these things.”
The nest in Blaine was uncovered after the state Agriculture Department trapped some hornets last week and used dental floss to attach radio trackers to them. The nest was about the size of a basketball and contained an estimated 100 to 200 hornets, according to scientists who announced the find Friday (Oct. 23).
Unlike their North American counterparts, Asian giant hornets don’t build paper nests that hang in trees or hide in attics. Instead, they mostly build nests in the ground or tree cavities.
The hornets are not interested in humans while outside of their nest. But, van Westendrop said, there is a public safety concern when it comes to nest disturbance.
“These hornets have an exceptionally strong defence response system. They come out and if they are perceiving you as a threat, they will start to sting,” van Westendrop said. “That is a concern we have in terms of public safety.”
The first Asian giant hornet in North America was spotted by a beekeeper in Nanaimo on Aug. 25, 2019. Shortly after that, another hornet was spotted in the city, and eventually a nest was found and destroyed in September 2019.
Then, in November of that year, a single hornet was found at a construction site in uptown White Rock. Three weeks later, two hornets were found in Blaine.
It was at that point that officials in Washington State and British Columbia initiated a surveillance program for 2020, which resulted in a hornet being found south of Langley and the most recent discovery of a nest in Blaine.
While both Washington and B.C. are monitoring for the hornets, van Westendrop says the tactics employed by the governments have been different.
“They have somewhat of a militaristic approach to the whole thing. We have approached it very differently and I don’t think that it is any less effective. From the beginning, we put together a very comprehensive contact list (including) affected municipalities involved, RCMP, Canadian Border Agency, and have traps in Semiahmoo First Nation, in White Rock, and dozens and dozens of traps along the border.”
The traps haven’t yet turned up a single Asian giant hornet, he said, adding that they are also in contact with about 170 beekeepers in the Fraser Valley who live within striking distance of the U.S. border.
While each country has its own way of tackling the issue, the question that remains is will it be enough? Is it possible for both governments to eradicate the hornets before they expand their territory, or will the governments forever play whack-a-mole with the critters?
“We don’t know. I honestly cannot tell you,” van Westendrop said.
What the science tells van Westendrop is that there are a number of factors working against the hornets. The preferred tree species for the massive insects are deciduous, not evergreen. While hornets may live quite happily in the Fraser Valley, they will likely have a harder time in evergreen forests. They also avoid dry areas, such as the Okanagan.
“So we have some quite formidable barriers that make it difficult for them to spread,” he said.
With such a small population base, the hornets will also be challenged by genetics.
“There will be a high potential for inbreeding and that inbreeding, in some insects like honeybees, results in a generally non-viable or very poorly viable offspring – or not at all. In these hornets, they may produce successful offspring, but less vigorous offspring,” van Westendrop said.
Factoring in the climate conditions and potential inbreeding, van Westendrop said there is still hope that B.C. and Washington State will have success in preventing the pests from becoming established.
That’s why there’s a sense of urgency once a sighting is reported.
“Washington State friends invited me to come over there, but the problem – and I would have loved to – is that, of course, these wasps don’t respect borders and we have to by circumstance.”
There are a number of theories about how the hornets initially made landfall in North America. One is that a few were inadvertently carried here in a shipment of logs or wood chips. Another theorizes they came overseas in a vehicle shipment, as vehicles tend to have a lot of crevices and space suitable for the insects to hide.
It’s less likely that they came in a cargo container, because these tend to be fumigated with Co2 to destroy tropical pests, van Westendrop said.
Despite their nickname and the hype, the world’s largest hornets kill, at most, a few dozen people a year in Asian countries, and experts say it is probably far fewer. Meanwhile, hornets, wasps and bees typically found in the United States kill an average of 62 people a year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
– with files from The Associated Press