Fact check: How dangerous are 'murder hornets'?

By: Brianna Zhang

Two Asian giant hornets, or “murder hornets,” have been found in the Pacific Northwest, suggesting that the invasive threat to honeybees has survived the winter in spite of attempts to get rid of them.

Found dead in a roadway near Custer, Washington, a black and yellow insect was identified as an Asian hornet, or a Vespa mandarinia, and was “probably a queen.” It was confirmed that a hornet of the same species was found in Langley, British Columbia on May 15.

The public nicknamed the species “murder hornets” to the disdain of etymologists for its tendency to kidnap honeybees to feed their young. Groups of Asian hornets have the ability to kill entire hives of honeybees in a few hours.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Americans are very on-edge about new challenges brought upon them, leading to many important facts about these hornets being overlooked. For example, America previously had one close call with these foreign hornets. Fortunately, that encounter had a happy ending.

The first encounter North America had with these giant hornets is back in 2016. An express package arriving at San Francisco held a suspicious papery honeycomb nest. The package was opened in a secure room and revealed a whole nest of Asian giant hornets. “There were no adults in the package, but plenty of pupae and larvae,” entomologist Allan Smith-Pardo said. A few of the hornets were still alive.

The package was suspected to be some kind of gourmet treat instead of an attempt at environmental destruction.

A second encounter happened in September of 2019 in Nanaimo, Canada. A whole nest of hornets the size of a grapefruit was found near a public footpath. The nest was destroyed by beekeepers.

Are these hornets a threat to honeybees?

James Carpenter, a hornet specialist, says that Asian hornets aren’t specialized in hunting honeybees. The hornets usually hunt alone for other insects in the early months, such as beetles.

However, as fall approaches, Asian giant hornets feel more pressure to acquire protein to feed the next generation of queens. This is when the hornets band together to hunt harder targets, such as nests of honeybees, hornets, and yellowjackets.

The hornets kill the adults and bring them back to their nests to feed their larvae. “Besides the impact on honeybees, then, they might have an impact on native

yellow jackets,” Carpenter says.

How dangerous are these hornets to humans?

A highly reported number from a Japanese paper from 2007 puts an annual death toll at 30-50 including people who are allergic to the giant hornet’s venom. The paper also says that out of 15 people hospitalized for stings, those who had been stung fewer than 50 times stood a good chance at surviving.

So, these hornets don’t pose much of a threat to humans unless they are allergic to venom or have been stung many times.

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