Recent reports of the Asian giant hornet in Canada and Washington state have prompted questions and concerns about the species. Scientists are concerned that these hornets could spread throughout these states, presenting a danger to US bees—which are already in decline—and humans.
Fears and concerns about the Asian giant hornet are valid. After all, insects like hornets, wasps, and bees are responsible for a total of 1,109 deaths between 2000 to 2017, with an annual average of 62 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that deaths ranged from a low of 43 in 2001 to a high of 89 in 2017. Approximately 80% of the deaths were among males.
Asian Giant Hornets: Facts
Dubbed as “murder hornets,” Asian giant hornets are native to temperate and tropical eastern Asia, including parts of Japan, China, India, and Sri Lanka. They form colonies that comprise of one queen and many workers, which can fly half a dozen miles or more from the hive to find food. While they usually eat many kinds of insects, they particularly enjoy feasting on bees. Since Asia is home for these hornets, how did they arrive in the US?
In 2019, a nest of Asian giant hornets was discovered on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. However, the authorities already destroyed the nest. Last December, the Washington State Department of Agriculture confirmed a dead specimen had been found in Washington. That was the first record of this species in the US. Today, authorities are not sure how the insects established themselves in some parts of the country or how widespread they are in the Pacific Northwest.
According to Science Alert, a leading scientific publisher dedicated to publishing peer-reviewed significant research work, it’s easy for invasive species to travel in cargo. More than 19,000 cargo containers arrive daily at US ports and inspectors can only do random searches for shipping containers. While authorities do search for harmful organisms such as plant pests, some are able to get through.
Murder hornets can easily be identified with their orange and black markings and long stingers. They are not only infamous for decimating honeybee colonies but also killing people. In Japan, an average of 30 to 50 people each year die from the hornets’ stings. In 2013, when populations of the hornets were unusually high, they killed 42 people in a single Chinese province. However, many experts are worried about how the media calls them “murder hornets.”
“I worry people are already scared enough of insects for dubious reasons. It does seem to have gotten people's attention. I just hope the sensational ‘murder hornet’ coverage helps us understand our ecosystems a little better,” Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, said.
According to the New York Times, an American newspaper based in New York City with worldwide influence and readership, Asian giant hornets can decapitate bees using their mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins. They can even wipe out a honeybee hive in a matter of hours. For larger targets, the hornet’s potent venom and stinger make for an excruciating combination that victims have likened to hot metal driving into their skin.
Since these insects were documented in the US, scientists have embarked on a full-scale hunt for them, worried that the invaders could decimate bee populations in the country and establish such a deep presence that all hope for eradication could be lost. “This is our window to keep it from establishing. If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done,” Looney said. In fact, officials in Kentucky and Tennessee have announced the setting of traps for the hornets, although the species have not spread that far and experts say it's unlikely.
Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher and wasp expert at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan, said that the damage Asian giant hornets cause the environment could be significant anywhere they spread. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, hornets are as dangerous as killer bees, the invasive species that have colonized parts of the southern US and caused human deaths.
Previous studies revealed that non-native invasive species weaken ecosystems and are the second leading cause of species endangerment behind habitat loss. A 2005 study estimated that the economic damages associated with invasive species in the US reached approximately $120 billion annually.
“We Should Worry About Mosquitoes More”
While Asian giant hornets pose potential damage to humans and our environment, scientists say that we should be worried about mosquitoes more. These insects are responsible for millions of yearly deaths worldwide from malaria, dengue fever, and other diseases. The CDC reported that at least 15 people died in the US from Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a rare disease spread by mosquitoes. They are also responsible for the death of as many as 50 billion people throughout human existence.
"People are afraid of the wrong thing. The scariest insect out there is mosquitoes. People don't think twice about them. If anyone's a murder insect, it would be a mosquito,” University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum said.
According to CBS News, an online site that covers breaking news, videos, and the latest top stories in world news, business, politics, health and pop culture, mosquitoes have plagued millions of Americans from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th with malaria and yellow fever. In comparison, Asian giant hornets at most kill a few dozen people a year and some experts say it's probably less.
"In the US, I would expect that becoming infected with a mosquito-transmitted virus is about as common as winning the lottery. That said, there are always lottery winners,” Lawrence Reeves, an assistant research scientist at the University of Florida's Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, said.
Reeves added that mosquitoes are some of the most dangerous animals in the world to humans because of the diseases they transmit. "If there are any animals most deserving of fear, it's the mosquitoes," he said.