By Dr. Brian Blodgett
Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University
In Washington state, where all U.S. sightings of hornets have occurred so far, beekeepers and state officials are concerned since 50 or so hornets can destroy a hive in less than two hours.
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Mike Baker, in a New York Times article, quoted Ruthie Danielsen, a beekeeper who is organizing a fight against the “murder hornets,” as the Asian giant hornets are also known. “We’re scared that they are going to totally destroy our hives,” she said.
In the same article, Ted McFall, whose honeybee hive in northwest Washington was attacked last November, said he “saw a pile of dead members of the colony in front of a hive and more carnage inside — thousands and thousands of bees with their heads torn from their bodies and no sign of a culprit. I couldn’t wrap my head around what could have done that.” It is believed that his hive was the first to be attacked in the United States.
Experts speculate that the invasive Asian giant hornet, which is native to East Asia and Japan, arrived in North America via a cargo ship. Asian giant hornets are apex predators that can rapidly decimate bee populations. The hornets are forest-dwellers that nest underground, often taking over abandoned tunnels of other burrowing animals, which makes finding them difficult. Occasionally the hornets will build nests in the hollow trunks or roots of trees.
According to Seattle Times reporter Christine Clarridge, “Asian giant hornets have a distinctive look, with a cartoonishly fierce face featuring teardrop eyes like Spider-Man, orange and black stripes that extend down its body like a tiger, and broad, wispy wings like a small dragonfly. They have mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins, which they use to decapitate whole colonies of honeybees before occupying their hive, feeding on their pupae and larvae, and then absconding with the worker bees’ thoraxes to feed to their own young.”
Asian Giant Hornets Often Attack Honey Bee Hives
Asian giant hornets often attack honey bees because their hives are a source of food for the invasive species. When three or more Asian giant hornets attack a honeybee hive, they enter what is referred to as a “slaughter phase.”
In this type of attack, the hornets do not return to their nest after killing one bee. Instead, they drop the bee’s corpse and kill the next bee, one after one, until either the nest is decimated. If nightfall occurs, the hornets will leave and come back the next day to complete the kill.
Once the colony is destroyed, the Asian giant hornets make continual trips from the occupied hive to their nest as they devour the honeybee brood.
First Hornet Was Discovered on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
The first Asian giant hornet was discovered in North America last September in White Rock, British Columbia, about 10 miles north of the McFall hive on the U.S. side. The hive was on scenic Vancouver Island, a tourist mecca across a strait that thought to be too wide for a hornet to have crossed from the mainland without human assistance.
In November, beekeeper and entomologist Conrad Bérubé was assigned to lead a group of beekeepers to destroy the White Rock hive.
Bérubé and his fellow apiculturists did not discover the hornets first, the hornets discovered them. Finding the nest but before he could douse it with carbon dioxide, Bérubé — although wearing protective gear, including thick leather work gloves and thick sweatpants under his bee suit — felt the first searing stabs in his leg.
He ended up getting stung at least seven times, some of the stings drawing blood. “It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh,” he said later.
Spraying the nest with carbon monoxide knocked them out, allowing the beekeepers to collect around 250 of them before they destroyed the nest with wasp-killing foam.
Washington State Hornets Unrelated to Canadian Branch
To date, there have only been a few sightings of the Asian giant hornet in Washington state. But the threat is real and will grow exponentially if they are able to establish a foothold there.
The elimination of the Canadian hive unfortunately has not alleviated the concern of American beekeepers because genetic tests have suggested that the Canadian and U.S. hornets are different.
During the spring and summer, the Asian giant hornet queen breeds workers, which reach a peak population of around 100 per nest in August. Then the queen produces males and new queens in September, which leave the nest in October and early November to mate. Once the males and queens begin to leave, the existing colony dies off during the winter.
Meanwhile, the new queens can fly many miles per day at speeds up to 20 miles per hour over the winter. Fertilized queens establish new nests the following year; thus quickly gaining ground in a new environment where they can thrive.
Chris Looney of the Washington Department of Agriculture, told KOMO, “We know queens come out of their nest in the fall, mate, and fly – somewhere. But nobody knows how far they fly, or if they fly repeatedly. We don’t know if they set up nests in the spring near where they hibernated, or if they start flying again. These are some of the things that make predicting natural dispersal a challenge.”
If left unchecked, the Asian giant hornets could quickly invade an entire region, according to KOMO Channel 4 in Seattle.
Researchers at Washington State University found that the climate of western Washington, Oregon and southwest British Columbia is ideal for the giant hornets that are likely capable of flying up to 68 miles per year.
“Under a worst-case scenario, that means the insects could spread all across western Washington and Oregon within 20 years if they are not contained soon,” the WSU researchers warned. The study also found that Asian giant hornets could find suitable habitat throughout the East Coast of the U.S. and populous parts of Africa, Australia, Europe, and South America, if humans were to inadvertently transport them.
Asian giant hornets can survive in areas of mild winters, high rainfall and hot summers with temperatures up to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes the Pacific Northwest an ideal location for the invasive species to gain a foothold in the United States. Currently, scientists believe that they could enter Oregon in 10 years and 20 years for them to make it to eastern Washington.
But scientists are not overly concerned about them spreading across the United States since “much of the habitat in the central United States (east of Washington and west of the Mississippi River) is completely unsuitable habitat for the hornets, as it is too hot and has too low rainfall,” Washington State University entomologist David Crowder told USA Today.
Hunting the Asian Giant Hornets
Asian giant hornet hives have been sought out since the early spring. According to Washington state officials, as reported by National Geographic, there likely was a colony in Washington in the fall of 2019 that could have produced many queens. These females would lie dormant until spring, and some of them were likely to have created nests.
In August, entomologists in Washington state captured their first Asian giant hornet in the United States. The goal of capturing them live is to tag them — which is possible because of their large size — and then track them back to the hive so it can be destroyed.
While the main concern at this time is the hornets decimating our Western states honeybee population, they also are a danger to humans. In Japan, 30 to 50 people on average are killed each year from their stings. Like other types of hornets, individuals can be allergic to their venom.
The Threat Posed by Asian Giant Hornets
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has requested the creation of a task force, headed by Texas A&M AgriLife experts to protect the state from the Asian giant hornets. According to Patrick J. Stover, the vice chancellor of Texas A&M AgriLife, “Although this pest has not been spotted in Texas, the hornet poses a threat to both agriculture and public health.”
Exactly how the Asian giant hornet reached North America is unknown. However, that does not matter anymore. What matters is stopping further spread of the invasive species. According to Greg Pompelli, the director of the Center for Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense, “We are developing training for Customs and Border Protection staff to be able to detect the Asian giant hornet. We are also increasing surveillance of incoming containers and evaluating opportunities for specialized detection, such as possibly using scent-trained dogs to find these hornets hidden in cargo or luggage.”
In 2019, this author commented in an article, Honey Bees: A Critical Component of Our Agricultural System, that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needed to “recognize the importance and criticality of our nation’s bees and the role they play as a primary contributor to our ecosystem. An attack against bees is an attack against Americans’ wellbeing in general.”
To date, the Asian giant hornets have not directly affected our nation’s food and agriculture sector, one of the 16 critical infrastructure sectors as determined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. Yet for the apple, blueberry, and cherry growers of the Pacific Northwest, the Asian giant hornets pose a serious and deadly threat to their honey bees and they must be eliminated.
About the Author
Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College, where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.
Dr. Blodgett is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.
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