The headlines concerning these bee-like insects are terrifying, but what’s the truth about these critters? Can they kill you? Are we looking at another great plague?
What Are Murder Hornets?
Murder hornets – Latin name Vespa mandarina – are the world’s largest hornet species, indigenous to Asia. Some individuals measure up to two inches in length – easily the size of your thumb – and pack a powerful sting. Their reputation in Asia is so bad that they have nicknames like “hornets from hell” and “yak-killer hornets” as well as the aforementioned “murder hornets.”
Can Murder Hornets Kill You?
Murder hornets didn’t get their name by chance. Researchers from Washington State University confirm that the hornet is known to kill people in Japan and that people in the US may also be at risk.
Murder hornets tend to make their way around the planet like a marauding army. In the wild, they attack bee colonies, feasting on adult bees, larvae, and pupae. But they can threaten people too.
Murder hornet stings contain a potent neurotoxin that causes large swellings on the skin and can damage the brain. Multiple stings can kill adult humans, even if they are not allergic. Estimates suggest that murder hornet kill 50 people in Japan every year. And in 2013 alone, murder hornets injured more than 1,600 people in China.
Where Did Murder Hornets Get Their Name
Murder hornets got their name from the fact that they kill bees, not people. Typically, they arrive in a beehive, feast on them, store them in their stomachs, and then regurgitate them to feed their young.
Unlike regular honey bees, these insects can sting multiple times. Furthermore, they tend to hunt in swarms, making them even more dangerous. While bees are their preferred food, they will attack people if they feel threatened.
Are Murder Hornets In The US?
The native bee population is already in danger because of habitat destruction. The arrival of this new bee-eating hornet could put further downward pressure on numbers, leading to severe ecological consequences. Scientists, therefore, are working on an eradication plan.
Murder hornets probably arrived in the US as stowaways in shipping containers from the Far East.
In 2019, Canadian pest controllers found and destroyed a nest near Nanaimo. Genetic testing, however, revealed that it was not linked to the current outbreak in Washington State, demonstrating that controlling these invasions is possible.
Why Do Murder Hornets Kill Bees?
Murder hornets are famously voracious feeders. They can descend on a bee’s nest and decimate it, slashing honey production. But why do they feed on bees mainly?
For most of the year, murder hornets are dormant. Then, starting in the spring, they become more active and begin looking for food. As the summer progresses and they need to collect more food for their young, they become more aggressive. That’s when they start attacking bees’ nests and stinging people.
The exact reason why they attack bees isn’t well understood, but researchers have a pretty clear picture of what happens when they do. First, a group of hornets descends on the colony. They then engage in what scientists call the “decapitation phase,” removing the heads of bees with their mandibles and feasting on the bodies.
Once they’ve had their fill, they move to the core of the nest to start gobbling the pupae and larvae. Usually, they will hang around for a week or so before traveling back to regurgitate the food for their young.
The native Japanese honeybee, Apis cerana japonica, has found a way to protect itself from the murder hornet by swarming around the invaders and suffocating them. Unfortunately, Apis mellifera – the honey bee used by most commercial pollinators in the US – has no defense against this. They could, therefore, see their populations decimated if these invaders gain a foothold.
People who live in Washington State are being urged to remain vigilant to this foreign pest and call in the exterminators if they find a nest.