'Murder hornet'

This Dec. 30, 2019 photo provided by the Washington State Department of Agriculture shows a dead Asian giant hornet in a lab in Olympia, Wash.

With queens more than 2 inches long and with wingspans of about 3 inches, they dwarf most other similar creatures. The alternating stripes of yellow and black on their abdomens seem to suggest that they have evolved to send caution signs to anyone foolish enough to stumble across them or seek them out.

Where the stripes end, the enormous stinger begins: Like something out of an "Alien"-themed video game, the needle-like structure delivers an enormous dose of a powerful neurotoxin and is capable of repeatedly penetrating multiple layers of protection. 

If enough of them get you, it’s game over.

And then there’s the nickname that has taken social media by swarm: murder hornet.

The Asian giant hornet, as this species is more formally known, is also called a sparrow hornet, which sounds a bit less horrifying — until you realize there’s little comfort in the notion of a stinging insect whose size makes people think of a small bird.

With the discovery of a colony of these invasive pests on the west coast of Canada several years ago and individual hornets in Washington state last fall — the first spotted in the U.S. — how worried do we need to be in northwestern Pennsylvania?

“That question has popped up for at least the last three years or more,” said Charlie Vorisek, who owns Vorisek’s Backyard Bee Farm in Linesville and serves on the Apiary Advisory Board, which meets with the state Department of Agriculture.

There is some good news when it comes to murder hornets, according to Vorisek. 

“It’s nothing to get alarmed about,” he said, “just yet.” 

Eric “Critter” McCool of Franklin has a nickname that’s ready to compete with the murder hornet and, even more usefully, has decades of experience in bee extraction and pest removal.

Like Vorisek, McCool has for several years been keeping an eye on reports about the arrival of Asian giant hornets in North America and offered some reassurances.

“They’re a pretty nonaggressive species, actually,” he said. 

Still, he added, their size means they deliver a larger dose of venom when provoked and also means that their daily explorations cover a much wider range than smaller wasps or bees. 

“They have the capability to spread more than the average insect,” McCool said.

And should a queen take up residence in a railroad car, for instance, it’s easy to imagine the hornets being unwittingly transported across the continent. 

Even so, people don’t have to worry about the murder hornets too much, according to McCool, particularly over the short term. 

The sizable pests do occasionally kill people, even dozens of people each year in Japan, according to the New York Times, but they are unlikely to reach Pennsylvania any time soon. By comparison, more than 60 people are killed annually by more familiar bees, wasps and hornets in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Murder hornets are not present in this part of the country, but McCool said that won’t prevent people from seeing them — or thinking they see them, that is. His phone has been buzzing steadily in recent weeks with questions about the high-profile hornet and claims of sightings. Inevitably, the sightings turn out to be other hornet species. 

“They’re prone to be confused with European hornets,” McCool explained, especially because the coloring of the two species is similar.

Vorisek remembers first spotting European hornets in Crawford County about 15 years ago, but the invasive species has been in the U.S. since the mid-1800s, he said. Their sting is painful, he added, but European hornets are not really dangerous. A colony took over an empty hive box near his lawnmower a few years ago. They can do a number on an apple tree, consuming the flesh of an entire fruit while leaving the hollow skin behind, but they have left him and his 200-plus bee hives alone.

Asian giant hornets, on the other hand, can be dangerous. The average person may not need to worry, but beekeepers should beware. 

The giant hornets feed on honeybees and just a few of the oversized monsters can ravage an entire hive in hours. According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, “The hornets enter a ‘slaughter phase’ where they kill bees by decapitating them. They then defend the hive as their own, taking the brood to feed their own young.”

The threat isn’t imminent, but it’s one more item on a long list of concerns for beekeepers.

On the positive side, Vorisek said, recent state surveys suggest that last winter’s mild weather — recent snowfall in May notwithstanding — was a good one for honeybees. 

“We’re looking at about a 38 percent loss” on average for beekeepers, Vorisek said. “We’ve been at almost 50 percent every year for years now.”

Though much smaller in stature than the giant hornets that have captured the public’s attention, the real threat to honeybees, according to Vorisek, remains the varroa mite, a tiny parasite that attaches to bees, sucks their blood, transmits diseases and then lays eggs in the bees’ brood to continue the cycle.

Fortunately, state efforts to promote hardier bees with genetic traits that enable them to better resist the mites have been working, Vorisek said. Beekeeping is also growing in popularity. Penn State Extension’s most recent Beekeeping 101 course, he said, drew 28,000 registrants from all over the country when it was offered free online during the coronavirus shutdown.

The health of local bee populations will likely be on display this week as colonies begin to swarm, Vorisek added.

“The snow slowed us down here a few times, but geez you wouldn’t know it from looking in the hive today,” he said. “They’re rocking and rolling, they’re ready to go.”

When they do, there’s a chance a few people, primed by reports of giant murder hornets, will raise the alarm. Vorisek attempted to mitigate such concerns.

“We’re watching it. It’s definitely on our radar.

“When all the other news goes away,” he said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic, “we’ll still be watching.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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