'Murder hornets' spotted in northwest US

The 5cm ‘murder hornets’, potentially deadly to humans and with an appetite for honey bees, have been found in the US.

| United States, Agriculture, Environment, US & Canada

The 5cm (2-inch) long Asian giant hornets, Vespa mandarinia, have been found in Washington state.

Known as "murder hornets", the insects' multiple stings can be deadly to humans and they are known for destroying honeybees, whose bodies they feed to their young.

Scientists are now hunting for the hornets, hoping to eradicate the species before they wipe out honeybees in the United States.

"It’s a large organism so it’s very intimidating when you first encounter one,” says Sven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist at Washington State Department of Agriculture. “In fact, when I first picked up the specimen in Blaine, I thought it was a child’s toy. That’s how large it was compared to other hornets that I’m used to dealing with.” 

Although the hornets typically avoid people, in Asia their stings are thought to cause as many as 50 fatalities a year. 

“If you sustain multiple stings, the necrosis and the venom will actually start getting into your bloodstream and will start working on your organs, Spichiger explains. “And multiple stings could literally be fatal and have been fatal. Most literature from Japan, for example, says it’s responsible for 30 to 50 deaths a year.”

It is unclear how or when the hornet first arrived in North America, but beekeepers in the region have reported gruesome hive deaths in recent months. Scientists are bracing for further emergence of the species.

The insects are roughly the size of a matchbox, have large yellow-orange heads, prominent black eyes, and a black-and-yellow striped abdomen. 

The Asian giant hornet's life cycle begins in April, when queens come out of hibernation and begin to feed. Once their habitats are built in the summer and autumn months, worker hornets are sent to find food. 

The hornets are able to decapitate honeybees, using the bodies to feed their young. They can destroy a honeybee hive within hours.

Washington State University scientists will begin trapping queen murder hornets this spring, aiming to detect and eradicate the species.

This species is most commonly found in Japan, where bees have developed an “ambush defence” to combat the hornets. When a hornet scout finds a honey bee hive, the honey bees lure her in, then collectively pounce on the hornet, beating their wings as much as they can.

This attack raises the temperature around the hornet, eventually killing her and a few of the honeybees closest. The hive will then remain undiscovered to the hornet colony.

However, bees in the US have not developed any defence mechanism against “murder hornets”, putting their hives at risk of being destroyed.

“The honeybees that we run here in the US, they have zero defence against this particular pest,” says Spichiger. “And what’s really unfortunate is that only a few Asian giant hornets, once they locate a colony, can kill a very healthy hive with no losses to the hornets.”

This report was produced and edited by Al Jazeera NewsFeed’s Hassan Ghani.

Source: Al Jazeera

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