Tracking the Asian Giant Hornet ‘murder’ as It Reaches North America: “This is our window to prevent it from settling,” Chris Looney, a Washington state entomologist, said of the giant two-inch Asian hornet. He showed a dead hornet on his jacket.
Asian Giant Hornet
Ruthie Danielsen pointed to places throughout Whatcom County where beekeepers have placed hornet traps.
Beehives at Mrs. Danielsen’s home in Birch Bay. Entomologist Chris Looney sets up makeshift traps for the hornet in an industrial park in Blaine.
BLAINE, Washington. In his beekeeping decades, Ted McFall had never seen anything like this.
As he raised his truck to see a group of hives near Custer, Washington, in November, he was able to see from the window a mess of bee carcasses on the ground. As he looked closer, he saw a bunch of dead members of the colony in front of a hive and more butchery inside: thousands upon thousands of bees with their heads ripped from their bodies and no sign of a culprit.
“I couldn’t understand what that could have done,” McFall said.
Sign up for the morning newsletter
Only later did he come to suspect that the killer was what some investigators simply call the “murder hornet.”
With queens that can grow up to two inches long, Asian giant hornets can use shark fin-shaped jaws to remove a hive of bees in a matter of hours, beheading bees and flying with their thoraxes to feed their young. For larger targets, the powerful venom and stinger of the hornet, long enough to pierce a beekeeping suit, create an unbearable combination that victims have compared to the hot metal penetrating their skin.
In Japan, hornets kill up to 50 people a year. Now, for the first time, they have come to the United States.
Mr. McFall is still unsure that the Asian giant hornets were responsible for the looting of his hive. But two of the predatory insects were discovered last fall in the northwest corner of Washington state, a few miles north of their property, the first sightings in the United States.
Since then, scientists have embarked on a large-scale search for hornets, concerned that invaders may decimate bee populations in the United States and establish a presence so deep that all hope of eradication is lost.
“This is our window to prevent it from establishing itself,” said Chris Looney, an entomologist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “If we can’t do it in the next few years, it probably can’t be done.”
On a cold morning in early December, two and a half miles north of Mr. McFall’s property, Jeff Kornelis stepped on his porch with his terrier dog. He looked down at a jarring scene: “It was the largest hornet I have ever seen.”
The insect was dead, and upon inspection, Mr. Kornelis had a hunch that it could be an Asian giant hornet. It didn’t make much sense, given his location in the world, but he’d seen an episode of YouTube personality Coyote Peterson getting a brutal sting from one of the hornets.
Beyond its size, the hornet has a distinctive look, with a fiercely cartoonish face with tear eyes like Spider-Man, orange and black stripes that spread across its body like a tiger, and wispy, wide wings like a little dragonfly.
Mr. Kornelis contacted the state, which came out to confirm that it was actually an Asian giant hornet. Soon after, they learned that a local beekeeper in the area had also found one of the hornets.
Dr. Looney said it was immediately clear that the state was facing a serious problem, but with only two insects on hand and winter, it was nearly impossible to determine how much the hornet had done at home.
During the winter, state agricultural biologists and local beekeepers went to work, preparing for the upcoming season. Ruthie Danielsen, a beekeeper who has helped organize her companions to fight the hornet, unfolded a map on the hood of her vehicle, pointing to places throughout Whatcom County where beekeepers have set traps.
“Most people are afraid of being stung,” said Danielsen. “We are afraid that they will totally destroy our hives.”
In addition to the uncertainty, and the mystery, there were other discoveries of the Asian giant hornet across the border in Canada.
In November, a hornet was seen in White Rock, British Columbia, perhaps 10 miles from the discoveries in Washington state, probably too far away for the hornets to be part of the same colony. Even earlier, a hive had been discovered on Vancouver Island, through a strait that was probably too wide for a hornet to cross from the mainland.
The teams were able to trace the hive on Vancouver Island. Conrad Bérubé, beekeeper and entomologist in the city of Nanaimo, was assigned to exterminate him.
He left at night when the hornets would be in their nest. He put on shorts and thick sweatpants, then his bee suit. He put Kevlar splints on his ankles and wrists.
But as he got closer to the hive, he said, the whisper of the brush and the brightness of his flashlight woke the colony up. Before he had a chance to wet the nest with carbon dioxide, he felt the first stitches in his leg: through the bee suit and the underlying sweatpants.
“It was like having red-hot thumbtacks on my meat,” he said. He ended up being stung at least seven times, some of the stings drew blood.
Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan, said the species had earned the nickname “killer hornet” there because its aggressive group attacks can expose victims to doses of toxic venom equivalent to that of a snake. poisonous A series of stings can be fatal.
The night he was bitten, Mr. Bérubé still managed to remove the nest and collect samples, but the next day his legs ached as if he had the flu. Of the thousands of times he was stung in his working life, he said, Asian giant hornet stings were the most painful.
After collecting the hornet from the Blaine area, state officials removed part of one leg and sent it to an expert in Japan. A sample of Nanaimo’s nest was also sent.
A genetic examination, completed in recent weeks, determined that the nest at Nanaimo and the hornet near Blaine were not connected, said Telissa Wilson, a state pest biologist, meaning there were probably at least two different introductions in the region.
Dr. Looney went out on a recent day in Blaine, carrying clear jars that had been turned into makeshift traps; The typical wasp and bee traps available for purchase have holes too small for the Asian giant hornet. He filled some with orange juice mixed with rice wine, others had kefir mixed with water, and a third batch was filled with some experimental lures, all hoping to catch an emerging queen to find a place to build a nest.
He hung them from the trees, geo-tagging each location with his phone.
In a region with extensive forested habitats for hornets to establish homes, the task of finding and removing them is daunting. How to find lairs that may be hidden underground? And where to look, since one of the queens can fly many miles a day, at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour?
The miles of forested landscapes and the temperate and humid climate of western Washington state make it an ideal location for the spread of hornets.
In the coming months, Dr. Looney said, he and others plan to lay hundreds of more traps that could catch worker hornets that would begin to activate during the summer. State officials have plotted the plan on a grid, starting at Blaine and moving outward.
The buzz of activity inside a giant Asian hornet nest can keep the indoor temperature up to 86 degrees, so trackers are also exploring the use of thermal imaging to examine forest floors. Later, they can also try other advanced tools that could track the characteristic hum that hornets do in flight.
If a hornet gets caught in a trap, Dr. Looney said, there are plans to possibly use radio frequency identification tags to monitor where it is going, or simply connect a small transmitter and then follow the hornet when it returns to its nest.
While most bees would not be able to fly with a disruptive market, that is not the case with the Asian giant hornet. It is large enough to handle the extra load.