Sunday, January 10, 2021

When it comes to giant hornets, there is great news about bad news

My son, wise beyond his years it would seem, taught me an invaluable lesson when he was a teenager living at home. Any time I got worked into a froth about a broken car, leaky roof or other serious, but non-cataclysmic setback, he’d put things in perspective for me: “Pops, it could always be worse – you could be on fire.”

This is a good model to apply to invasive species. Depending on the situation, they can wreak some genuine havoc, but sometimes the perception of danger is so far overblown that other problems ensue.  It’s important to place an issue in the proper scale, beyond the fact that we are hopefully not surrounded by flames at the moment.

“Murder hornets” are a perfect example. Known in polite society as the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), it is the largest hornet in the world, measuring 1.5 to 2 inches (38-51 mm) long and weighing up to one ounce (28 grams). They feed on many insects, including some pest species, but they also destroy and consume honey bee colonies at a terrifying pace, and would be a tremendous threat to apiaries if they were to get established in North America. What has really grabbed our collective attention, I think, is the danger they pose to us. With their extra-long, robust stingers and large venom sacs, Asian giant hornets can in fact kill humans. It’s the poster child for unbridled foreign malevolence.

Now the good news about the bad news, because perspective is critical.

The Asian giant hornet is less dangerous to us than the bees that are already here. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, an average of 62 people die annually in this country from bee, hornet and wasp stings. On the other hand, the Northeast Invasive Species Center reports that no more than 12 people per year are killed by the supposed “murder” hornet in East Asian countries where it is native. These include India and China, whose respective populations are many times that of the US.

A 2002 study concluded they do not build nests in buildings, but nearly always nest underground, or occasionally in a the lower section of a hollow tree. And although they have an ample supply of venom, the stuff is less acutely toxic than honey bee venom. In addition, Asian giant hornets are less aggressive than our native yellow jacket species.

Also, it’s NOT HERE in the Northeast! I mean really not here – Ireland is closer to the US than we are to the Asian giant hornet. At the moment, it has only been found in a few locations on the Pacific coast in northwest Washington state and southwest British Columbia, and in every case within a few miles from the ocean.  US Federal authorities and their counterparts in Washington state and British Columbia have initiated a massive push to locate and destroy nests. Unlike the spotted lanternfly, whose egg masses have been accidentally shipped thousands of miles in cargo, the “murder hornet” does not have the same proclivity for hitchhiking, and there is no reason to believe it will spread quickly.

Finally, overstating the hazard posed by Asian giant hornets has encouraged folks to persecute all sorts of similar insects, including species of flies and even dragonflies.  We may not be overly fond of bald-faced hornets, yellow jackets or paper wasps, but they help keep pest populations in check, and are important as pollinators as well. Here is a hint to tell if a nest is that of the Asian giant hornet: if you can see the nest, it’s not them!

Citizen science is very important in the fight against invasive species, but proper education has to come first. To avoid killing helpful lookalike species, you can find a picture gallery of similar insects at https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/planthealth/plant-pest-and-disease-programs/honey-bees/agh If you are concerned you may have found a “murder hornet,” please take a picture and then call your local Extension or NY State Department of Conservation office for instructions on how to proceed.

Residents of northern NY State have much to be grateful for. In addition to all the good things we have, there’s a litany of bad stuff we don’t have. Kissing bugs, brown recluse spiders, tree-of-heaven, termites, and now Asian giant hornets should be on that list. Remember, things could always be worse. I suggest changing the batteries in your smoke detector, just in case.

A longtime North Country resident, Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist and author who now spends time in both Canton NY and Val-des-Monts Québec. He would like to remain a non-smoker.

Photo: Washington State Department of Agriculture technicians tag an Asian giant hornet with a radio tracker – WSDA photo

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Paul Hetzler

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.

You can read more of his work at PaulHetzlerNature.org or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World




6 Responses

  1. Drew P Weiner says:

    Thanks for putting in perspective Paul, great article!

  2. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Good science, humor and optimism………welcome post. Thank you.

  3. Allan G Bowdery says:

    Bee sting mortality is not due to the toxicity of the poison, but due to anaphylactic shock of those that are literally deathly allergic to bee stings. Whether this is the case for the Asian giant hornet, I don’t know. Possibly, European heritage Americans may be more likely to have the allergy than Asians.

  4. Michael Welles says:

    Thank you. Perspective is sorely needed in these days of over communication and over reaction. Your data and “perspective” is greatly appreciated !

  5. Peter Dean says:

    I do not claim to be an expert on hornets, wasps or bees, but I must disagree with some of Mr. Hetzler’s comments about the Asian giant hornet, which he calls a murder hornet. In October 2019 I and two friends were trekking in a very remote part of NE Nepal, about 10 miles from the Chine(Tibet) border. Our group of 3 Westerners (US and UK) plus porters was led by a very experienced Sherpa, Ang Namgel Sherpa, who has about 20 years climbing and trekking experience. He has climbed Everest 7 times, has led many treks and is very knowledgeable about native wildlife. The penultimate day of our trek took us through the gorge of the Arun Nadi, one of Nepal’s largest rivers. That morning Namgel stopped us on the trail, pointed at a tree about 30 yards down the slope from us and warned us that there was a hornet’s nest in the tree. He said, just as a matter of fact, that those hornets could kill a person, and that it didn’t take many to do that. The nest was near the top of the tree, and was about the size of a large watermelon. I have a photo of the nest, taken with a telephoto lens, it but cannot figure out how to post it to this comment. For obvious reasons, I did not try to get any closer to the nest.

    Giant hornets do nest in trees, and they kill many more people a year than Mr Hetzler suggests. I have read that as many 50 people in Japan die each year from hornet attacks. Perhaps their poison is not as potent as a bee (I do not know), but there is much more of it because they are so much larger than a bee, and they can and will sting repeatedly when they are aroused. It is probably true that they do not exist in the eastern US, but don’t take them lightly.

  6. nathan says:

    Every effort should be made at this point to eradicate the Giant hornet..It is no little thing to be ignored. They decimate honey bee hives, they can literally destroy a hive in a few hours. 100’s of thousands of hives pollinate billions of dollars in food products a year. A widespread invasion of giant hornet would impact california in a billion dollars a year with bee hive and resulting food crop losses such as almonds. they are just barely in North America, it would be worth billion dollar effort now, than the slow spread across the country over 50 plus years and the billions per year in losses to agriculture. human deaths may or may not be a huge issue and costs of hositalizations. But every person lost would be a loss to some family. But the ecological and farming losses are EXTREMELY real. PAUL HETZLER shame on you for SO UNDERSTATING A TRUE ECOLOGICAL DISASTER!!!! Would you call the loss of chestnuts,elms, ash just insignificant also???

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