- The Washington Times
Sunday, August 30, 2020

An occasional interview series with everyday Americans who are challenging the status quo.

To the lengthening list of problems 2020 has visited on the United States, another one may be drawing near: “slaughter season” for Asian giant hornets known dramatically as “murder hornets.”

It’s not people the hornets are after — though that’s a real concern given that they kill 10 to 50 people a year in Japan — but other bees, which is bad news for the pollinated apple and cherry harvests that help make Washington state famous.

“Fortunately, people really do seem to realize this is not just the problem of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. It’s everyone’s problem,” said Sven-Erik Spichiger, the agency’s managing entomologist. “All of the Pacific Northwest, that’s down into California, and just about all of the Eastern United States east of the Mississippi is the perfect habitat for the Asian giant hornet.”

On the front lines against invasive pests, Mr. Spichiger, who said he is “older than some,” has chalked up stings from several types of honeybees, mud daubers, bald-faced hornets and yellow jackets.

Now, he faces what may be his toughest opponent. The Asian giant hornet is the world’s biggest hornet and generally launches its main offensives in September and October. The menacing insect made a small splash this spring when it was spotted in the U.S., but two male soldiers that have been trapped in the past two weeks raised alarm in Washington state entomology labs.

As scary as they may sound for humans, it is within the insect realm that the hornets are the terrifying equivalent of 13th-century Mongol hordes.

“They literally decapitate them,” Mr. Spichiger said of the giant hornets’ infantry attacks on other bees. “They’ll destroy a hive with 30,000 honeybees in just a few hours, and they drop them right there. The dead just pile up, and that’s why we call it ‘slaughter.’”

Humans are not immune to the insect’s venom, which packs a bigger punch than the average bumblebee. Regular beekeeping armor is insufficient protection.

“In 2013, the hornets had a really good year and killed 42 people in southern China,” Mr. Spichiger said.

History shows that Americans have adapted to invasive species including zebra mussels, a Black Sea-area mollusk introduced by shipping ballast illegally dumped into the Great Lakes, and Formosan termites, which were stowaways on cargo ships docking on the Gulf Coast.

After early apocalyptic reports, these creatures have made life more expensive for humans and lethal for some native species but have not spelled the doom that their arrivals heralded.

“We will survive, and when you see the hashtag ‘murder hornets,’ you know someone is being sensationalistic,” Mr. Spichiger said. “I suppose if I really searched maybe I could come up with something, but, no, there’s little good they do.”

One full nest of Asian giant hornets was destroyed last year in British Columbia. More recent trappings have been in Custer and Birch Bay, Washington.

While the 1.5- to 2-inch hornet is not intrinsically hostile to man, it “will defend itself vigorously” if it senses a threat to its home, which is usually a nest at the base of a tree or in a discarded animal burrow.

“We really dodged a bullet there in British Columbia because that nest was just 5 feet off a walking path in a public park,” Mr. Spichiger said.

The source of the invasion of Asian giant hornets is unknown.

They could have been smuggled into North America by a gastronomic adventurer. Many Asians saute the giant hornets’ larvae or fry the adults.

Another theory is transport by a misguided performance enhancer. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the women’s marathon gold medalist, Japan’s Naoko Takahashi, credited “drinking the stomach juices of giant killer hornets,” according to accounts at the time.

“That was another thought: that someone was trying to sell organic hornet juice, which is highly illegal and I think highly unlikely,” Mr. Spichiger said.

Indeed, the source of that juice may give some consumers pause. Wing soldiers of the Asian giant hornet kill other insects, break off their limbs and mash what remains into a kind of meatball that they fly to their headquarters, Mr. Spichiger said. The larvae eat the mush and then secrete the juice that sustains other Asian giant hornets and some champion long-distance runners.

The most likely source was with cargo on a ship or plane that housed a mated queen, Mr. Spichiger said. He noted that Washington officials over the years have foiled two attempts to smuggle in the stingers via Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

“Whatever it was, we’re just here to pick up the pieces,” he said.

Washington state aims to eliminate, not just contain, the Asian giant hornet. That may be overly optimistic. One school of thought holds that insects will rule the Earth after reptiles and mammals have gone.

“When we go up against insects, we lose about 99.9% of the time,” Mr. Spichiger said. “They have a big world to hide in, and we can’t get to all of their places, but the goal is eradication.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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