The Slatest

Here’s Something Else to Worry About: “Murder Hornets” Have Reached U.S. for First Time

Honeybees climbing upside-down on a comb
Honeybees in Stuttgart, southern Germany, on Sept. 19. Sebastian Gollnow/Getty Images

Just in case you’re tired of stressing out about the coronavirus, you can start worrying about something else: giant hornets. Asian giant hornets, which researchers have come to call “murder hornets,” have been spotted in the United States for the first time. And now there’s a mad scramble to stop them in their tracks before they cause potentially irreversible damage. Researchers have been tracking the invasive hornet species that slaughters honeybees and can be deadly to humans for months, but the issue gained renewed attention after the New York Times published a feature on it this weekend. “They’re like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face,” Susan Cobey, a bee breeder at Washington State University’s department of entomology, said.

For now most of the concern is for the local honeybee population rather than humans. And with good reason. The vicious insect that can grow to 2 inches long doesn’t have “murder” in its nickname for nothing. Its normal modus operandi is to decapitate the bees and then feed the thoraxes to their young. And they can be so vicious that they can simply wipe out an entire honeybee hive within a few hours. And they aren’t too nice to humans either. Its long stinger can puncture a beekeeping suit, and victims often describe it as the most painful sting they have ever experienced. A beekeeper in Nanaimo, British Columbia, who got stung several times likened the sting to “having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh.” YouTube personality Coyote Peterson published a video of getting purposefully stung by a giant hornet (the moment of the sting is at 11:30 in the video below). Multiple stings can be fatal, and in Japan the hornets kill as many as 50 people a year.

Experts worry that if they fail to control the population of the Asian giant hornets now, it will become a lost cause. “This is our window to keep it from establishing,” said Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.” The hornets were first detected in the United States in December, when four reports of sightings were verified by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. And that’s when the experts began working on preparing for the giant hornet’s life cycle that begins in April, which is when the queen wakes up from hibernation.