Asian giant hornets have hit the news recently, sometimes going by the name of “murder hornets”. Below are six key things to know about these insects and the situation in North America:
1) What is the Asian Giant Hornet?
The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which is also known as the “great sparrow bee” in its native range (or recently sensationalized as the “murder hornet”) is a wasp species native to parts of southern and eastern Asia. The Asian giant hornet is amongst the world’s largest wasps, with queens approaching a length of 2 inches (typically ~1.5 inches). Workers and males are smaller, but still measure over an inch long. Asian giant hornets have a distinctive appearance with a bright yellowish-orange head, a dark body, and alternating dark and yellowish stripes on the gaster (“abdomen”). This species creates subterranean nests, which commonly have a peak workforce of around 100 workers.
Asian giant hornets pose threats as an invasive species in North America. These insects are efficient predators with complex hunting behaviors. While Asian giant hornets prey upon a wide range of insects, they are capable of attacking honey bees. Under the right conditions, Asian giant hornets can decimate hives of European honey bees (Apis mellifera) within a few hours. Their potent stings can also pose medical concerns for humans.
2) What’s the risk in the Midwest?
Based on the current situation, the risk from Asian giant hornets in Wisconsin and the Midwestern US is extremely low. To date, Asian giant hornets have never been found in Wisconsin or surrounding states. A very small number of Asian giant hornets were spotted in southwestern British Columbia and northwestern Washington state in the second half of 2019. For Wisconsin, these sightings have been roughly 1,500 miles from us. At the time this article was written (early May 2020), Asian giant hornets had not been spotted in North America in 2020. Update 5/27/20: we recently learned that AGHs have made it through the winter in North America. This species recently resurfaced, as reported in the New York Times. Despite this recent finding, all confirmed sightings of the AGH are from the Pacific Northwest and these insects pose little risk for the Midwest at this time. Update 12/20: No substantial changes by the end of 2020—in North America, AGHs are still only known from far northwestern Washington State and nearby parts of British Columbia. This insect has not been documented anywhere outside of that range.
3) What’s the timeline of the Asian giant hornet story?
Asian giant hornets have gotten a lot of attention in the news recently, but these stories really missed the main “action”, which occurred roughly half a year ago. (Imagine if Sport Illustrated took half a year to write about the Super Bowl’s winning team!). The story of the Asian giant hornet in North America began in August of 2019 when a beekeeper in Nanaimo, British Columbia (SE Vancouver Island) spotted these wasps. Three specimens were collected at the time and their identity was confirmed.
Also in August of 2019, a beekeeper in Northern Bellingham, Washington (US) observed Asian giant hornets, but no specimens were collected. Back in Nanaimo, British Columbia, an Asian giant hornet nest was located and eradicated in an urban park (Robin’s Park) in September. A month later (late October, 2019) a specimen was photographed in nearby mainland British Columbia (White Rock, BC). Around that time, the same beekeeper in Northern Bellingham, Washington observed Asian giant hornets attacking a hive. The last sighting of the Asian giant hornet occurred near Blaine, Washington in December of 2019, when a dead specimen was collected and a live specimen was spotted at a hummingbird feeder.
Update June, 2020: Small numbers of AGHs have been reported in North America—but only in the pacific Northwest.
4) Have Asian giant hornets become established in North America?
The ability of the Asian giant hornet to survive and spread in North America is not understood at this time. In its native range, the Asian giant hornet is associated with forested and low mountainous areas with temperate or subtropical climates. A key unanswered question at the moment is: have the Asian giant hornets successfully overwintered in North America? Update 5/27: we recently learned that AGHs have made it through the winter. This species recently resurfaced, as reported in the New York Times.
Asian giant hornets overwinter as queens. If previously fertilized, queens attempt to establish nests during the spring months. Established nests won’t produce the next batch of queens to carry on their “blood lines” until mid-fall, meaning that responders monitoring the situation in the Pacific northwest will have roughly half a year to hunt down any nests. For this reason, 2020 will be a critical “make or break” year in the story of the Asian giant hornet in North America.
Responders in the Pacific Northwest have plans to monitor for Asian giant hornets with traps and visual methods. If spotted, individual hornets can potentially be tracked back to their nest to allow responders to eradicate the colonies. Full details of the USDA response plan can be viewed here.
5) Health risks to humans are low
By referring to the Asian giant hornet as “murder hornets”, recent news stories have given the false impression that these insects pose a regular threat to humans. Many stories have repeated the claim that Asian giant hornets kill around 50 people a year in Japan, where these hornets naturally occur. In reality, the actual numbers are much lower. Based on publicly available data from the Japanese e-Stat statistics portal, from 2009-2018 an average of 18 deaths were reported annually in Japan from hornets, wasps, and bees combined. For comparative purposes, roughly twice as many annual deaths (average of 35) were reported as the result of slipping and drowning in bathtubs over that same period of time.
Nonetheless, Asian giant hornets do have potent venom and 1/4 inch-long stingers, which pack a punch. Due to their large physical size, a relatively large volume of venom can be injected leading to painful stings. If many stings occur (such as if one were to disrupt a nest), medical attention is advised.
6) Are there any look-alikes?
While we don’t have Asian giant hornets in Wisconsin or the Midwest, we have plenty of other insects that are currently being mistaken for the Asian giant hornet or could be mistaken for these hornets later this year. Panicked individuals thinking they’ve found an Asian giant hornet might end up killing native, beneficial insects which pose little risk to humans—such as bumble bee queens, which are currently trying to establish their nests for the year.
Historically, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab receives many suspected reports of Asian giant hornets every year—all of these have been misidentifications by the submitters. To date, no confirmed sightings of the Asian giant hornet have occurred in Wisconsin or the Midwestern US. However, with the media spotlight on the Asian giant hornet, an increase in false reports is expected at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this year. Click the diagram below to view a full-size version.
Some of the commonest look-alikes include:
Cicada Killer Wasps (Sphecius speciosus) These are the closest match in terms of size. However, these solitary ground-nesting wasps are really quite harmless, unless you happen to be a cicada... Because these insects don’t have a colony to defend, they are very unlikely to sting. This is the top look-alike reported to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab every year. For additional details see this post: Asian Giant Hornets—Nope!
Great Golden Digger Wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus) These solitary ground nesting wasps capture and feed katydids and related insects to their young. Because these insects don’t have a colony to defend, they tend to be docile.
Pigeon Horntails (Tremex columba) These primitive wasp-like insects develop inside of decaying trees as larvae and can be common. They are not capable of stinging, but females do possess a prominent egg-laying structure (ovipositor).
Elm Sawflies (Cimbex americana) These plump, wasp-like insects cannot sting. The caterpillar-like larvae can feed on elms, willows, birches, and other hardwood trees.
Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.) The Midwest is home to over 20 species of bumble bees. These beneficial pollinators play important roles in the ecosystem. Bumble bees do live together as colonies and can act defensively if the nest is directly disturbed, but these important pollinators are generally docile. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and naturally die out in the fall.
Yellowjackets (Vespula spp. & Dolichovespula spp.) The Midwest is home to more than 10 species of yellowjackets. Common species, such as the German yellowjacket (Vespula germanica) are typically around ½ inch in length. Yellowjackets are social insects and depending on the species, nests can occur in the ground, in hollow voids (such as soffit overhangs or wall voids), or as exposed as papier-mâché type aerial nests. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and die out naturally in the fall.
Bald-Faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) Our largest social wasp in the Midwestern US, reaching lengths of approximately ¾ inch. Bald-faced hornets are technically a type of “yellowjacket” but have a distinctive black and white appearance. These insects create large papier-mâché type nests, which can approach the size of a basketball. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and die out in the fall.