Scary stories about murder hornets are all over the news, so that means we should panic, right? Nope. There have been only a few isolated detections in the Pacific Northwest, so Michiganders and their bees are not at risk of a deadly invasion of hornets.
These insects may never arrive in Michigan, and it is highly unlikely they will soon pose a threat to humans or honeybees in our state. The reason you are hearing so much about these hornets is not because they are a big risk, but because the media is creating sensationalist headlines to grab readership already primed with fear.
It isn’t a new story; it is just a good example of the media using strong language and public fears about large insects, so their story goes viral.
While these hornets can kill honeybees, they aren’t evil — they are insects that serve a really interesting and important role in their own ecosystems. Bees and humans both have plenty of threats, and dramatic stories such as these can help spread false ideas and take our attention away from real issues we can help solve.
The real story
Vespa mandarinia is a wasp native to temperate and subtropical areas of eastern and southeastern Asia. In fall 2019, a nest of these hornets was found in British Columbia, Canada, and it was destroyed. Later in the fall, a single hornet was found in the same area, and in December, two more reports of hornets were confirmed in the same area, although they were technically in the U.S. — just across the border in Blaine, Wash. So, as of last winter, we technically had confirmed a few individuals of this species in our country.
The identification of a few individual insects is not evidence of an invasion. Rather, it shows our invasive species monitoring systems are functioning. Invasive insects and plants are constantly coming into our country through shipping, travel and transport, which is why we have the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
APHIS and USDA have a network of sentinel monitoring and reporting systems to catch non-native species before they can become established. The quick identification and eradication of known Vespa mandarinia hornets is a good example of this monitoring system working effectively, and the Washington Department of Agriculture has a wealth of resources for residents in the area to identify and report further sightings.
What you should not do
Don’t panic. This insect is unlikely to show up in Michigan and be a major risk to humans or our honeybees. While it is theoretically possible these insects could become established on the continent, there is no evidence it will happen.
Our state Department of Agriculture and Michigan State University Extension are quite aware of this insect, and we have a system for monitoring and reporting invasive species in place through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) Pesticide and Plant Pest Management Division.
Don’t just start killing large insects. There are a lot of large insects that are native to our state that play important roles in our ecosystems. In the aftermath of the recent viral articles, many of us in the Department of Entomology at MSU have heard stories of people killing large black and yellow insects, including native bees and important beneficial insects such as parasitic wasps.
If you find a large insect that you need identified, you can mail a specimen or send a high-quality photo to MSU Plant & Pest Diagnostics. See the MSU Extension article “Tips on submitting insects for identification” for more information. The best strategy for wasps, hornets, bees and other large insects is to just leave them alone.
What you should do
Take action against invasive pests that do represent a threat. MDARD maintains a watch list of key invasive species, and you can learn to spot species that are a threat to the state on its site. You can report watch list species using the information on each species profile page.
For species not on the watch list, you can use the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network online reporting tool or the MISIN smartphone app. Alternately, these species can be reported to the Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area for your region or your local conservation district.
Take action to support bees and other pollinators. The Michigan Pollinator Initiative maintains a page with links on how you can support honeybees and other pollinators, including planting guides, citizen science projects and an online course, Pollinator Champions.
Seek out good, reputable information: Below are links to other university fact sheets with useful information on this insect, as well as some responses to the fear-mongering by the media.
American Bee Journal Article: 'Ridiculous' to Call Asian Giant Hornet 'the Murder Hornet'
Tufts Pollinator Initiative: Stop Calling it the Murder Hornet
Smithsonian Magazine: No, Americans do not need to panic about ‘Murder hornets’
University of Minnesota: What you need to know about invasive giant hornets
Virginia Tech: Asian Hornet Fact Guide
Penn State Extension: Asian Giant Hornets
For a deep dive into their life cycle and their potential as pests, watch the Washington Invasive Species Council webinar on invasive species and read the USDA New Pest Response Guidelines.
Take the time to get to know this fascinating creature. Just because social media has chosen to vilify this beautiful insect doesn’t mean you should. Did you know that Vespa mandarinia have a royal court? Or that they use acoustic communication? Or that they often feed on tree sap and feed each other outside their nest?
They may even protect trees from other more damaging species who will not forage while they are there. Furthermore, these hornets help keep populations of other hornets in check.
Meghan Milbrath is an academic specialist with Michigan State University Extension, Department of Entomology.