Asian Giant Hornets: Killer Species or Media Buzz?

As 2019 came to a close, the world hoped that 2020 would mark a new decade and better times. However, we were less than halfway through the year, and had already experienced a seemingly never-ending global pandemic, economic devastation, and extreme bushfires. As we scrambled to adjust to these challenging times, another headline broke about ‘Murder Hornets’ that reignited panic in many. The Asian Giant Hornet (or Vespa Manderinian) is native to South-East Asian countries such as Japan, India, Thailand, and China but was recently discovered for the first time in British Columbia and Washington State. It has captured the world’s attention because of its size and destructive capabilities. This particular hornet is the largest on Earth and has a 6mm long stinger than can deliver toxic venom to cause tissue necrosis, allergic reactions, and in very extreme cases, kidney failure. What has many environmentalists and apiarists worried, however, is not the human health implications but rather the damage they can cause to bee populations. Unlike other wasps and hornets, they feed on insects such as bees and beetles. This has caused many to speculate at the effect this species will have on the already suffering bee population in North America. But before we get caught up in the sensational and dramatic reporting done by several main-stream media services, it is important to delve further into this issue. Are we truly facing another crisis, or is this yet another media piece with a lot of ‘buzz’ and little substance?

As of yet, there are three key aspects of this story that are causing panic amongst individuals. The first is that this species has never been seen in North America and is going to proliferate extensively throughout the continent. At surface level, this may seem very possible. The Asian Giant Hornet can be very destructive to the bee colonies it targets. It only requires a minimum of three hornets to take down an entire colony and they attack by first decapitating their victims and then eating the remaining protein-rich thorax. With such power, must come the ability to wipe out entire bee populations … Right? The answer is not so straight forward. These hornets can only inhabit areas with specific geographies and temperatures. They are most commonly found in hilly regions and almost exclusively build their nests underground. This means that several areas of North America such as the Prairies are simply uninhabitable to the species. It is therefore too early to definitively suggest that these Hornets will take over North-East Pacific ecosystems.  

The second thing that many are concerned about is that if the hornets do invade North America, they will be devastating to bee colonies. It is yet again impossible to make such an assumption. It is true that bees in the North are not equipped to retaliate against Asian Giant Hornets because they have not co-evolved with them like the bees in South-East Asia have. Those species have devised a technique to target the hornets that involves surrounding their victim and creating high levels of heat and CO2 to suffocate it. However, it is important to remember that bees are not the primary target of this ‘killer’ insect and are usually only attacked later in a hornet’s life cycle. Furthermore, not all colonies of bees lay prey to hornets. In fact, hornets do not like to travel to find their victims and usually only go as far as 1km from their nests to hunt. Lastly, environmental agencies in both B.C. and Washington have successfully eradicated all known ‘Killer Hornet’ populations to date and, should the need arise, are capable of implementing South-East Asian techniques to stop the species from attacking bees. It is therefore, still unknown what impact Asian Giant Hornets will have on bee populations and all is not lost for this key species.

The last aspect of the Asian Giant Hornet that worries many is its human health implications. The idea of any sting from a bee is scary, but a sting from the biggest hornet on the planet seems absolutely terrifying. While a hornet sting can be painful, it is in no way deadly. Hornets are most dangerous to humans when their nests are disturbed and, unless you are anaphylactic to them, a single sting will do little more than leave some swelling and bruising. This is why it is important that if you suspect there is a hornet nest nearby, you leave it alone. Causing any disturbance to it will likely draw several hornets out who will want to protect their brood by stinging their attacker. If you are stung more than 10 times, you should seek medical attention. However, the media has cruelly mislabelled this species as killer simply for shock value and to garner attention.

The Asian Giant Hornet is another victim of mainstream media reporting. Can it be deadly to insects and humans? Yes. Has it suddenly been discovered in a novel area of the globe that has little defence against it? Yes. Will it cause destruction of North American habitats and bee populations? It is still impossible to say! However, time and again, reporters chose to leave out this key fact and opt for more sensational articles that do little to shed light on the real problem and only monger fear amongst lay readers. Governments and environmental agencies should of course be ready to intervene and take necessary measures but should not drum-up worry by dramatizing the situation. Furthermore, concerned citizens should not avoid the outdoors for fear of being stung and should simply remain alert and cautious when exploring nature. There are so many other invasive species that are causing severe damage to our ecosystems that are not receiving the same level of attention as ‘Murder Hornets’. It is vital that in a time when we are being bombarded by irresponsible reporting, we become selective and skeptical of what we chose to believe. We must all strive to dig deeper than simply what articles chose to show us to stop the mass spread of misinformation.


What to do if you think you’ve spotted an Asian Giant Hornet:

Distinctive characteristics of the Asian Giant Hornet include:

  1. Its large size
  2. Black head with yellow eyes
  3. Its nest is found in the ground

So if you see a hornet with these characteristics, try and take a picture of it from afar and report it to your respective government environmental agency. Scientists also recommend uploading the image to iNaturalist which is a primary tool for researchers to track wildlife.

If you think you have spotted this hornet, leave it alone and don’t take your own measures to try and kill it. Take extra care when you are exploring nature not to disturb hornet nests by staying on designated paths. If you are concerned, carry an antihistamine with you incase you get stung.


Referenced Material:

Baker, M. (May 2, 2020). “Murder Hornets” in the U.S.: The rush to stop the Asian Giant Hornet. The New York Times. [Internet]. Accessed 2020, May 19. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/02/us/asian-giant-hornet-washington.html

Howes, N. (May 18, 2020). Asian giant hornets: A lot more buzz than sting, experts say. The Weather Network. [Internet]. Accessed 2020, May 19. Retrieved from: https://www.theweathernetwork.com/ca/news/article/asian-giant-murder-hornets-a-lot-more-buzz-than-sting-experts-say-invasive-species

Looney, C., Spichiger, S-E., Salp K., Westendorp , P.v., Wojahn, R., Cena, J. (2020). Vespa manderinia in the Pacific Northwest- Initial response to an invasion by the world’s largest hornet. Washington State Department of Agriculture and British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture. [Internet]. Retrieved from: researchgate.net/profile/Chris_Looney/publication/341105813_Vespa_mandarinia_in_the_Pacific_Northwest_-_Initial_responses_to_an_invasion_by_the_world’s_largest_hornet/links/5eadd07b299bf18b9590f7bb/Vespa-mandarinia-in-the-Pacific-Northwest-Initial-responses-to-an-invasion-by-the-worlds-largest-hornet.pdf

N.A. Asian Giant Hornet. Washington State Department of Agriculture. Retrieved from: https://agr.wa.gov/departments/insects-pests-and-weeds/insects/hornets

N.A. (2020, May 6). Asian Giant Hornets. Penn State Extension. [Internet]. Accessed 2020, May 19. Retrieved from: https://extension.psu.edu/asian-giant-hornets

Smith-Pardo, A. H., Carpenter, J. M., Kinsey, L. (2020). The diversity of hornets in the genus Vespa (Hymenoptera: Vepidae; Vespinae), their importance and interception in the United States. Insect Systematics and Diversity, 4(3). https://doi.org/10.1093/isd/ixaa006

Three Asian giant hornets found in Nanaimo. Invasive Species Council of BC. [internet]. Accessed 2020, May 19. Retrieved from: https://bcinvasives.ca/news-events/news-from-iscbc/bc-government-bulletin-three-asian-giant-hornets-found-in-nanaimo

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