Washington state scientists to set 1,000 traps for 'murder hornets'

Asian giant hornets are the world’s largest hornets and famously aggressive.

Updated: May 26, 2022 - 11:38pm

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Scientists will set about 1,000 traps this year in northern Washington state as part of an effort to wipe out the Asian giant hornet, preventing the menacing insect from establishing a foothold in the state and beyond.

Asian giant hornets are the world’s largest hornets, with queens reaching up to 2 inches in length. The apex predators are considered an invasive species in North America and are well known for their aggression and ability to kill bee and other hornet species.

A small group of the Asian giant hornets can, in a matter of hours, kill an entire honey bee hive. Honey bees pollinate many of the crops in Washington’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.

The Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia, was first detected in the Pacific Northwest in 2019.

Sven-Erik Spichiger, Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) managing entomologist, said three Asian giant hornet nests were detected last year.

“All of them were within two miles of each other and very close to the Canadian border, just a little bit to the east of Blaine, Washington,” he explained during Tuesday’s virtual press conference. “And so we are still in a very tightly compact and confined area, which leads us into this season with a bit of optimism that is has not spread to multiple counties and does not appear to be throughout the rest of Whatcom County, which is really good news.”

Most traps, which help scientists find the location of nests, will be set up in northern Whatcom County adjacent to the Canadian border, Spichiger said. A few will be set in the city of Bellingham.

Attempts to capture the insects there will wane in the event no Asian giant hornets are caught.

“So long as everything continues to go negative in Bellingham, then we will be able to dial back the trapping in that area,” Spichiger said.

To cover more ground, the department encourages residents to set their own traps.

Trapping is just one part of the war against the Asian giant hornet that also includes WSDA’s “Adopt a Wasp” program that essentially uses paper wasp nests as bait to track the spread of the invading insects.

It works like this: Starting in June, people are asked to monitor paper wasp nests on their property and report online their findings of any Asian giant hornet activity.

Efforts are also underway to determine exactly where in Asia these giant hornets came from, including determining how they are getting across the Pacific Ocean. The prevailing theory is that the insects are crossing on cargo ships.

“For that reason, we will be partnering up with researchers in both South Korea and Japan,” Spichiger said.

Stealing a page from flying insect’s playbook, Spichiger said drone technology is being enlisted to track Asian giant hornets.

“We don’t want to alarm anybody,” he quipped. “We’re not going to be spying or anything.”

He went on to say, “And so what we have done is we have partnered up with an Australian company called Wildlife Drones that makes probably the best radio telemetry tracking software as a payload for drones. And the idea is after we have tagged a hornet is to be able to get up in the air and go over some of these barriers and allow us to put a better GPS signal on that tracking tag and allow us to get to it a lot safer than we’ve been able to do in the past.”

The hornets will not be considered eradicated until the Evergreen State has gone three full years with no detections, Spichiger said.

In a public relations move of sorts, Spichiger said the Entomological Society of America is working to establish an official name for the insect, noting Asian giant hornet, or what some have dubbed the “murder hornet,” are not official names.

“WSDA will adopt whatever the Entomological Society of America eventually officially accepts,” he said.

Asian giant hornets rarely attack humans unless provoked. The intimidating insect, however, deliver a powerful sting, which can kill a human being if a person is stung repeatedly.

An estimated 30 to 50 people die annually from Asian giant hornet stings in Japan, one of their native habitats.