Panic quickly erupted in the U.S in early 2020, as the first Asian Hornet sighting was confirmed in Washington state. The widely adopted nickname of ‘Murder hornet’ certainly didn’t help to calm the public. But is this reputation deserved or is it just sensationalist journalism?
With a pandemic in motion and a name pulled straight from a Quentin Tarantino script, it is no wonder that the first sighting of the Asian Hornet caused terror in the U.S. Each year, between 10 to 50 human causalities are attributed to the hornet in Japan and China, its native region. However, these figures are certainly misleading. The term ‘Murder hornet’ is not at all a fair representation of the threat they present, or even the normal behaviour of the species. The Asian hornet is not known to be aggressive towards humans. Stings can be painful, but no worse than a European wasp. The incidence of death is also not common, and when it does occur, it is most often associated with an allergic reaction. For humans, the hornet’s reputation and grim title, is really a severe case of media induced hysteria. When it comes to bees however, the story is not so positive.
Asian Hornets are honey bee predators. As with the ‘Varroa destructor’, another invasive species originally from Asia, European honey bees have not evolved a natural defence. The hornets are social creatures and form colonies. A small group of hornets will raid a honey bee colony and commence biting the heads off worker bees with their sizable mandibles. This is known as the ‘slaughter stage’ of the attack. Several hornets can destroy an entire population of worker bees in under two hours. In phase two, or the ‘feeding phase’, the hornets feast on the bodies of the decapitated bees, before moving into the hive. The hornets can live in the hive for longer than a week and feed their young on the larvae and pupae.
The more legitimate concern is that the invasive species will negatively impact honey bee populations, which are already fighting wars on different fronts. Interestingly, the Asian Hornet was first confirmed in Europe in 2004, reaching the U.K by 2016 and Switzerland by 2017. Here the hornet has not developed significant populations or had a measurable impact on honeybees. Could this offer some insight into the future for the honey bee is the U.S?