Asian giant hornets, the world's largest species of hornet, have recently been spotted in Washington state

By Jason Duaine Hahn
May 04, 2020 03:00 PM
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Filippo Turetta/Wikimedia

It seems 2020 isn't done with unpleasant surprises.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture recently verified the United States' first sightings of the Asian giant hornet — a 2-inch-long insect that kills honey bees and can kill humans in rare instances.

The hornet (also known as Vespa mandarinia) was initially spotted in December after a group of Washington beekeepers discovered hundreds of bees with their heads ripped off.

“They’re like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face,” Susan Cobey, a bee breeder with Washington State University’s Department of Entomology, recently told WSU Insider of the invasive species.

"It’s a shockingly large hornet," added entomologist and invasive species specialist, Todd Murray. "It’s a health hazard, and more importantly, a significant predator of honey bees."

The Asian giant hornet invades honey bee hives and destroys them from the inside out in a matter of hours, according to WSDA. The species does this in part by decapitating the bees and then feeding surviving larvae to their own young.

"They attack honey bee hives, killing adult bees and devouring bee larvae and pupae, while aggressively defending the occupied colony," Seth Truscott, of the college of agricultural, human and natural resource sciences at WSU, told WSU Insider.

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While the Asian giant hornet does not generally attack people or pets, it can when threatened.

"Their stings are big and painful, with a potent neurotoxin," Truscott said. "Multiple stings can kill humans, even if they are not allergic."

If the species manages to establish itself in Washington and surrounding areas, they will create "negative impacts on the environment, economy, and public health," the agricultural department said.

According to the New York Times, the hornets — native to temperate and tropical areas such as East Asia, South Asia, Mainland Southeast Asia — kill up to 50 people a year in Japan.

The insect has been given the nickname "murder hornet" in the country because of its toxic venom, which can equal that of a venomous snake, the outlet reported.

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Scientists and beekeepers in Washington are now hoping to control the spread of the species by setting up hundreds of traps into the coming months, the Times reported.

“This is our window to keep it from establishing,” entomologist Chris Looney said. “If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”