"Vespa mandarinia japonica" by KENPEI / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just How Dangerous Is the ‘Murder Hornet’?

May 12, 2020

By Paige Embry

The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) has arrived in North America. In the past several days photographs and videos have surfaced showing how viciously this insect has attacked honeybees elsewhere in the world: it crawls into hives and rips off the heads of bees in large numbers—making its supervillain nickname, “murder hornet,” feel disturbingly apt. U.S. government agencies and local beekeepers have sprung into action, hoping to eradicate the hornet—thus far seen just in Washington State and nearby Vancouver Island—before it can consolidate a foothold in the continent. Success may lie in how predator and prey interact naturally.

V. mandarinia is the largest hornet in the world. A female worker may grow to a length of nearly four centimeters (an inch and a half), and the insect has large biting mouthparts that enable it to decapitate its victims. Hornets are usually solitary hunters. But between late summer and fall, V. mandarinia workers may band together to conduct mass attacks on nests of other social insects, notably honeybees. This behavior even has a name: the slaughter and occupation phase. U.S. beekeepers supply billions of honeybees each year to help pollinate at least 90 agricultural crops. And they are worried that this new raider could further worsen already deep losses in important pollinator populations.

The hornet is native to Asia, ranging from Japan and Russia down to Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma). The first confirmed U.S. sighting was a dead specimen found in Washington last December. But several of the insects had previously been seen on Vancouver Island in British Columbia in the late summer and fall of 2019.⁠ No one yet knows whether the hornet is establishing a North American beachhead in the Pacific Northwest or if it will spread from there. If it does advance, that could mean trouble.

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