As we all deal with changes to daily life due to COVID-19, a new threat to bee health has apparently emerged for beekeepers in North America: the Asian Giant Hornet. Reports of the so-called “Murder Hornet” have popped up recently even though they were first discovered in the Pacific Northwest last fall. But like any news story surrounding bee health, media outlets have been eager to sound the alarm. Is all this panic reasonable or is the media blowing this out of proportion?
Let’s start off by clarifying that the moniker “Murder Hornet” was created by journalists, not experts, as explained by entomologist Conrad Berube in this video. Berube is careful to remind viewers that these hornets aren’t “murdering” humans—honeybees are their main prey.
Killer Bees: The Sequel?
When I first heard about the Murder Hornet, I was immediately reminded of the “Killer Bees” scare that’s been around since the early ‘90’s. News outlets warned we’d see hordes of blood-thirsty bees set on taking over cities and enslaving the masses. Now known by their less sensational name, Africanized bees are still prevalent in many Southern states, but the death toll hasn’t quite lived up to the hype.
Articles from as early as 1993 and more recently in 2007 and 2019 attempt to debunk Killer Bee hysteria. In these articles spanning nearly 3 decades, a common theme is beekeepers battling media sensationalism to convey their message: stop panicking, we’ve got this under control. But shockingly, most media outlets didn’t run with this narrative.
Setting aside my thoughts on the accuracy of media coverage on bee issues, I’ll drop my skepticism for a moment. I can think of another bee health threat that migrated from Asia: the Varroa Destructor. You’d be hard-pressed to convince me that there was a more devastating event in the history of American beekeeping than the introduction of the Varroa mite. Though I’m tempted to dismiss the Murder Hornet story as clickbait, the overwhelming impact of Varroa makes me a bit cautious.
Africanized “Killer” Bees are a subspecies of honeybees, just slightly more aggressive. If Killer Bees took over all the nation’s hives, not much would change in the life of a beekeeper. Asian Giant Hornets, on the other hand, aren’t honeybees at all. If they become established nationwide, beekeepers would need to adopt new methods to prevent the hornets from devouring their bees.
Asian Giant Hornets are usually found in low mountain foothills and lowland forests, building nests in the ground. They avoid plains and high-altitude regions altogether, which leads me to believe that they’ll struggle to spread beyond the Pacific Northwest. The Rocky Mountains and the High Plains states should provide a strong buffer against their eastward spread.
As far as I can tell, so far only one Asian Giant Hornet nest has been identified in North America, the one discovered and eliminated by Berube on Vancouver Island. Two sightings of individual hornets were reported near Blaine, Washington, and a third was found less than 5 miles away in White Rock, British Columbia. Based on this, it sounds like the hornet is already pretty well contained.
Until experts get a better idea of the hornet’s ability to gain a foothold in North America, my instincts tell me that the Murder Hornet doesn’t pose a significant threat. I have confidence that beekeepers and researchers will contain the spread of the hornet.