Buzz about 'murder hornets' could be too early
FARGO — North Dakota experts are concerned “murder hornets” could decimate honeybee populations if the pests make their way to the top honey-producing state in the county, but the buzz may be bigger than the sting.
Asian giant hornets, the 2-inch-long insects that were recently popularized under the name “murder hornets,” set social media abuzz earlier this month after media reports noted they were discovered for the first time in the U.S. Two of the hornets, which are the world’s largest, were reportedly found dead in December in northwest Washington near the Canadian border.
The hornet has not been found in North Dakota, the top honey-producing state in the U.S., nor has it been spotted in other states. North Dakota produced 33.8 million pounds of honey last year, a fifth of the nation’s total, according to statistics released in March by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said he has spoken with the Washington State Department of Agriculture about how the hornet can threaten honeybee populations, especially if a hornet’s nest is established and they get hungry.
“It is a very real threat if we get some because they are large,” Goehring said. “They’re sizable in that they can certainly take on just about any honeybee species or anything that is of some size that is going to be quick nutrition.”
Still, the possibility of the hornets making their way to North Dakota is relatively low, said Travis Prochaska, a North Dakota State University Extension crop protection specialist in Minot.
“I’m not convinced it could survive the winters here,” he said.
Native to southeast Asia, Asian giant hornets prefer tropical weather as opposed to North Dakota’s cold winters, Prochaska said.
They were first discovered in North America when a nest was found in September in British Columbia, Canada, said Timothy Lawrence, a Washington State University professor who specializes in honeybees. It’s unclear how the hornets made their way to Canada and Washington state, though the sightings appear to be unrelated, Lawrence said.
Washington is working to trap the hornets as they begin to come out of hibernation, though it’s unknown how many they could see, Lawrence said.
Asian giant hornets pose a significant threat to European honeybees, the type that produce honey around the U.S. and in North Dakota, experts have said. The WSDA said the insects can destroy a honeybee hive in a matter of hours.
“The hornets enter a ‘slaughter phase’ where they kill bees by decapitating them,” the WSDA said on its website.
Lawrence, Prochaska and Goehring said media reports about the hornets attacking and killing humans have been overstated. The pests can be aggressive when defending their nests or being agitated, but “they’re probably really not going to mess with you,” Goehring said.
Prochaska noted about 50 people die from Asian giant hornets a year globally, less than the 62 people who die from honeybees each year.
The pests could become a threat to honeybees that live in other states and are waiting to return to North Dakota for the summer, Prochaska said. Lawrence said there are physical barriers for hornets to travel across the U.S., such as mountain ranges.
“I think it is way too early to get too upset,” he said, though he added scientists, honeybee farmers and others in the industry should be cognizant of the issue. “We certainly don’t want them anywhere in the United States.”
Goehring said he hopes Washington gets a handle on the situation so the hornets are not transported to North Dakota.
“It would be too easy for migration to happen,” he said, noting open shipments of lumber or other products from Washington.
If the hornets do come to North Dakota, Goehring said he would seek resources to trap, monitor and eradicate the insects before they harm honeybees.
“We are going to research and do as much as we can to stay on top of this,” Goehring said.
Those who do find nests are asked to contact their state’s agriculture department. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture can be contacted at 701-328-2231, 800-242-7535 or email@example.com.
For more information, go to agr.wa.gov/departments/insects-pests-and-weeds/insects/hornets.