SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Nicknamed the “murder hornet,” the two-inch invasive insect species is notorious for its appetite for honey bees and a stinger that can kill up to 50 people per year in its native country of Japan.
Now, the world’s largest hornet is making national headlines for its sightings in Washington state and leaving people in Utah wondering if it can migrate all the way to Beehive state. The short answer is – No, most likely not.
Stephen Stanko, entomologist at the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) told ABC4 News the Asian Giant Hornet was first sighted in Canada last August and then in Washington state two months later.
Joseph Wilson, Biology Professor at Utah State University’s Tooele Campus said the hornets are likely coming to the forefront of conversation now because of Washington Department of Agriculture and Food’s (WDAF) trapping campaign.
“Experts in the Pacific Northwest are asking people to be extra cautious and asking people to be on the lookout for them. This is the time of year when the queen will emerge from hibernation and start a new colony,” he said.
According to the WDAF, the hornet can destroy and kill a beehive within hours, putting an already vulnerable species at a higher risk. They said it can also deliver seven times the amount of venom as a honey bee and sting through most beekeeper suits, adding that as a result, they’ve ordered special reinforced suits from China.
The Asian Giant Hornet normally lives in the forests and low mountains of eastern and southeast Asia. It feeds on large insects, including wasps and bees. Their stings are big and painful, with a potent neurotoxin.
“Those who are stung more than 10 to 20 times often need emergency care. Those stung more than 50 times can suffer from multiple organ failure and die,” said Stanko.
Wilson said Asian Giant Hornets don’t normally attack humans and will only do so if they feel threatened, i.e. if someone accidentally bumps or digs up their underground hive.
“The name ‘murder hornet’ can be misleading. Hornets are hunters, so if you’re another insect, then yes, you might call them murders. But their goal is to feed their babies, through protein from other insects or meat sources such as a piece of your hamburger from your backyard BBQ,” said Wilson.
Both Wilson and Stanko said it isn’t known exactly how the hornets arrived in North America. But they both have the same theory.
“They were likely introduced along the coast between Canada and Washington, there’s a lot of ports there. So they likely came over on a container ship,” said Stanko.
“Insects get transported all around the world, often by accident in shipping. A lot of insects will hibernate in little crevices or holes and so, as we ship containers around the world, sometimes those hibernating insects can make it to other places and establish in new areas,” said Wilson.
ABC4 News asked three different local experts if the murder hornets could likely make their way to Utah in the near future. All said the chances were extremely low.
“We’re not likely to see them here in Utah, even if they do get established in the Pacific Northwest. They just can’t live in these dry environments that we have here,” said Wilson. “However, adaption is a possibility for some shifts to happen ecologically. But it is a big shift to go from sub-tropical Asia to the Intermountain West and desert.”
“We’re at higher elevation and our aired climate might not be conducive for their survival. So that’s good news for us,” said Lori Spears, Invasive Species Survey Specialist at Utah State University. “From my understanding, they are not very good hitchhikers and so they would have to arrive here on their own. They would have to cross a lot of geographic barriers in order to reach Utah and it’s not likely they’ll adapt in our area.”
“The chances are good that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and WDAF will be able to eradicate these pests. So it’s likely Utah will never see it,” said Stanko.
But if the hornets somehow make it to Utah, which would take several years, Stanko said the UDAF will develop a stability model for the state to identify which areas are most at-risk, send notifications out ahead of time, deploy traps, and pursue eradication measures if necessary.
“Our two biggest concerns are human health and then honeybee health. If for some reason, the USDA and WDAF’s efforts are unsuccessful, we will be here to protect the stakeholders in Utah,” he said.
Wilson notes that Utah is native to other species of wasps. As the weather warms up and brings more insects outside, people may mistaken these wasps as the Asian Giant Hornet.
“What can easily be mistaken is the cicada killer wasp, which is one of the largest wasps we have in Utah,” he said. “If you see something big, your first instinct shouldn’t immediately be that it’s an Asian Giant Hornet.”
However, if you travel to the Pacific Northwest and believe you are encountering one of these ‘murder hornets,’ experts advise to get as far away from it as possible.
“Keep a safe distance. You don’t want to try and approach these hornets. If you see several of them, there’s a chance you’re in proximity to a nest. It would be best to calmly leave the area and then call your the state’s department of agriculture.”
The Washington Department of Agriculture will begin trapping hornet queens this spring with plans for eradication.