By James Yurasits
Asian Giant Hornets Vespa mandarinia are the world's largest-known wasps, and in late 2019 these deadly insects were spotted in the United States for the first time. Nobody yet knows how they arrived from East Asia and Japan, but we do understand that they're dangerous.
The media has been swift to designate these invaders with the nickname 'Murder Hornets' for their skill in destroying foreign ecosystems, but why exactly are Asian Giant Hornets so deadly?
Murder Hornets - as we now call them - are armed with an arsenal of toxic venom, a large stinger, and sharp mandibles. But humans aren't the target of these killer insects, honeybees are.
It only takes a small group of Murder Hornets to invade a honeybee hive and when they do, it turns into a slaughter. Within 90 minutes of reaching hive, Murder Hornets will have decapitated the entire colony of workers. The hornets use their large mandibles to cut the heads off of the honeybees, and overtaking their home by force. The hornets will then inhabit the newly conquered hive and continue reproducing.
Even though Murder Hornets are known to kill 30-50 people each year in Japan, those numbers are small, especially considering that most of these incidences involve direct contact or disturbance with the Murder Hornet’s hive.
The Real Threat - Becoming An Invasive Species
Over time, honeybees in Japan have co-evolved alongside Asian Giant Hornets, learning to defend their hives from these invaders. Japanese honeybees Apis cerana japonica will swarm any unwelcome hornet scout, suffocating it to death with this unique technique.
Unfortunately, honeybees on our side of the world have no defense against Asian Giant Hornets. If we fail to eradicate this newly introduced species, there will be a cascade of consequences.
For starters, European Honeybees Apis mellifera are the world’s most important pollinator of commercial food crops. When our honeybees take a hit, we as human consumers will feel that hit. Scientists estimate that one-third of the food we consume each day depends on pollination by honeybees. Common agriculture practices involve housing honeybees in colonies and transporting them to fields at just the right time to help pollinate crops.
As of now, Asian Giant Hornets have only been found in Canada and Washington State, meaning that they haven't fully 'invaded' North America yet. If they do proliferate, then we'll be facing a truly dangerous invader. Invasive species are by definition: species that have been introduced into a foreign ecosystem, and come to have a detrimental impact on native flora and fauna. For some perspective on their impact, Invasive species are the second leading cause of species endangerment globally, behind only habitat loss.
Protecting Our Honeybees
Scientists are currently hard at work planning how to eradicate Asian Giant Hornets from North America, before the invasion becomes unstoppable. Thankfully, we've discovered these hornets early on, and so there is a good deal of hope that we can stop the bleeding.
But honeybees have been in trouble for a while now, and there are plenty of ways you can help protect these crucial pollinators at home:
1. Keep bee friendly plants
2. Avoid the use of pesticides
3. Keep a water supply nearby your garden
4. Protect swarms
5. Spread awareness
6. Support local beekeepers
7. Start your own hive
The simplest actions here include keeping bee friendly plants and avoiding the use of pesticides.
In the Springtime plants like Crocus, Hyacinth, Borage, Calendula, and Wild Lilac are great honeybee supporters.
Bees feast on Bee Balm, Cosmos, Echinacea, Snapdragons, Foxgloves, and Hosta in the Summer.
Zinnias, Sedum, Asters, Witch Hazel and Goldenrod are late bloomers that will help honeybees in the Fall.
Although Asian Giant Hornets look like the kind of animal that fuels nightmares, these hornets pose a minimal threat directly to humans. Instead, we need to focus on the impact that these invaders can wreak on the world's honeybee populations.
Stay tuned for updates on the spread of this invasive species in North America!