Is that a murder hornet in your yard? Here's what to do
Don't panic—call in the pros
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The murder hornets that have been making headlines and alternately terrifying and fascinating the public this year can be as deadly as their nickname implies, but their true threat is to honeybee populations, rather than people.
Also known as the Asian giant hornet, it is native to eastern and southern Asia, from parts of Russia and Japan, to Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand. Scientists can only guess as to how the hornets initially made it to North America, but they were first discovered on this side of the Pacific Ocean in 2019, on Vancouver Island, in British Columbia.
With all the hype surrounding the world’s largest hornet—at up to two inches long, one is the size of my pinky finger—let's drill down and see what you need to really be concerned with.
The most immediate question is: Will these orange-faced, black-eyed, brown-and-orange-striped monsters show up in your backyard, and if they do what should you do?
How to identify a murder hornet
Given their enormous size, there’s just no mistaking a honeybee, bumble bee, or yellow jacket for an Asian giant hornet. But, there are a few types of bees that the untrained eye may confuse, the first being the inch-ish-long bald-faced hornet. But, being black and white, their coloring is all wrong.
Allen Gibbs, an evolutionary physiologist at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is an expert in insect physiology and evolution, describes a cousin to the murder hornet that’s bigger and bears a name that’s just as fear-inducing.
“We do have wasps that are even larger than murder hornets, but they aren't black and yellow, and really can't be misidentified as such,” he says. “They’re often called tarantula hawks, and they have dark bodies and reddish wings. They do not resemble hornets at all, and they do not live in the Pacific Northwest.”
Are you and your children at risk at home?
Despite their killer nickname, ‘murder’ hornets don’t really pose a bodily threat to humans, and they’re not interested in stinging you—unless you approach their nest, so don’t do that.
Gibbs says, “Don't disturb a wasp nest, if possible. When agitated, wasps emit an alarm pheromone that stirs up all the other wasps in the colony.”
You’d have to either be allergic to the sting or be stung multiple times to warrant a hospital visit. In Japan, where the hornet is considered native, annual death numbers reportedly range from 30 to 50.
The real risk posed by Asian giant hornets is to honeybee populations and the consequent ramifications of decreased pollination on our fresh food supply.
Asian giant hornets kill honeybees, and do so quickly, decimating a honeybee hive containing thousands of bees in less than two hours by invading the hive and decapitating the bees.
More dead honeybees means less honeybees to pollinate fruit trees, berries, and vegetable plants that we depend on farms to grow. Scientific American estimates honeybee pollination as a $15 billion annual enterprise.
Do you need to be on the lookout for them?
The answer depends on where you live.
Asian giant hornets like specific climate conditions, and these do not include extreme heat or extreme cold. Instead, they enjoy the wet, mild weather of Washington state near the Canadian border, which is where these insects have been sighted and trapped.
If you live outside this area, it’s extremely unlikely that the insect you’ve found is the notorious murder hornet. At least for now. Using computer simulations, scientists predict that the hornets could make it to northern Oregon in 10 years, and then into western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia after 20 years.
Washington State University entomologist David Crowder previously told Reviewed’s parent company USA Today, “It is highly unlikely that the hornets could make their way across the entire country. Much of the habitat in the central United States is completely unsuitable habitat for the hornets, as it is too hot and has too low rainfall. Thus, unless they are moved by humans, it would be nearly impossible for the hornets to make their way across the country on their own.”
While the Asian giant hornets would not find the middle of the U.S. particularly friendly, there are large stretches of both the east and west coasts of the country that could accommodate them, if transported there by humans.
Gibbs says, “The number I've seen is that they could spread 50-60 miles per year. It's hard to see how they'd get to the Midwest or East Coast without hitchhiking on a truck or train, or by cargo ship (which is presumably how they got to Washington).”
What to do if you think you’ve found one in your yard
First thing: Don’t panic. The circumstances have to be just right for an Asian giant hornet sighting, and the chance that you could find one in your yard is highly unlikely, even if you do live in murder hornet country.
Also, consider the time of year. As Asian giant hornets are dormant over the winter season, it’s even more unlikely you’ll spot one before April.
Andrew Greess, owner of Quality Equipment & Spray, a pest control company that’s been operating out of Phoenix, Arizona, for more than 25 years, says, “They typically begin seeking food in April, and they’re usually most aggressive during the late summer and fall. It’s during that period that they normally attack colonies of honeybees.”
For your safety, you should not try to eradicate the nest on your own—the hornets can sting through beekeeping gear, and the venomous sting does not feel nice.
Generally speaking, scientists want to find the hornets alive, so they can tag them and track them back to their nest. With this in mind, it may seem counterintuitive to call a pest control expert to handle the problem, but both Greess and Gibbs agree you should.
“You should enlist the services of a pest control professional who is trained in the application of pesticide chemicals,” says Greess.
Gibbs says that “an exterminator may be appropriate, even in northwest Washington. If it is one of these [Asian giant hornets], an exterminator should be able to recognize it as not his or her usual target. And they can collect some dead specimens and have them identified.”
Not panicking will yield the best results for everyone. “The probability of these being ‘murder hornets’ is really low, and state and USDA officials probably have other things to do than chase these down,” Gibbs emphasizes. “If you do find really big hornets, over twice big as any you've ever seen, that's when you want to contact the state [where you live] or the USDA.”
You can quickly and easily report your sighting on the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s website.
Tips for keeping bees, hornets, and wasps away
While your risk of encountering a murder hornet is low, you will likely have to deal with the average variety of bees, hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets in your environment at some point.
Since bees and wasps are attracted to sweet smells and flavors—like nectar—don’t leave sugary drinks, soda (especially in cans), or juice unattended outside, like on your patio table. Likewise, don’t leave trash laying around.
Bees and wasp species don’t like certain natural scents, which you can incorporate around an area where you like to congregate, such as your patio or the kids’ swing set. Plantings like lavender, garlic, spearmint, lemongrass, and eucalyptus should do the trick.
Keep your patio furniture aesthetic more neutrally toned or in darker hues, since bees are attracted to bright colors. You don’t want to be confused for a flower.
Regularly inspect areas where bees and wasps like to make nests. This includes roof overhangs and eaves, under decks, in sheds, around railings, empty pipes, and inside the legs of some patio furniture.
If you find a nest, and it’s small (like the size of a golf ball or baseball), you can probably take care of it yourself using a spray at night. But if it's any larger, the safer bet to prevent an angry swarm from chasing you around your yard, is to call in an exterminator.
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