First 'murder hornet' nest had 200 queens. There could be more out there
A nest of a massive, and potentially deadly, invasive hornet species in Washington state likely isn’t the only one in the U.S., a state entomologist said.
A team with the Washington State Department of Agriculture that destroyed the first discovered nest in the U.S. found about 500 hornets at various stages of their life cycles in the nest — including approximately 200 queens.
Some of the queens could have escaped, mated and formed new colonies next year had they not been captured.
“We got there just in the nick of time,” said Sven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture.
However, other sightings of hornets around the area indicate that the team’s work might not be finished.
“We do believe there are additional nests,” he said at a virtual news conference Tuesday.
“When you see all be it a relatively small nest like this able to pump out 200 queens, it does give one a little bit of pause.”
Asian giant hornets, officially named Vespa mandarinia and nicknamed “murder hornets” in the media, are a species not native to the United States that can devastate honeybee populations critical for crop pollination. However, the habitat in the Pacific Northwest is “perfect” for the hornet, Spichiger said.
The hornets were first detected in the U.S. in December 2019 in Washington state and one was captured in July in Whatcom County near the Canadian border. It’s unknown how the insect made it from its native areas of China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam to North America, but Spichiger said confirmed sightings are limited to Whatcom County and British Columbia.
The insects are the world’s largest hornet and can grow up to 2 inches long. Terrifying in appearance, their stings could also deliver a potentially deadly venom, especially for those who are allergic or if someone were to stumble upon a nest and sustain multiple stings, Spichiger said. The stings can cause necrosis and lead to organ failure, he added.
In Asian countries, the hornets kill more than a dozen people a year, but “these are not going to hunt you down and murder you,” he said. In the U.S., typical hornets, wasps and bees kill an average of 62 people a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
There were less than 800 cells in the nest destroyed in October, Spichiger said, while other nests in the hornets’ native area can produce more than 4,000 cells and 800 queens.
Spichiger said he was confident that most of the queens from that nest did not escape. An unknown number could have, though, meaning they have a chance at founding new colonies next spring.
While it’s not known how many nests could already be out there, Spichiger said he’s cautiously optimistic that it is still possible to stamp out the hornets’ presence in North America.
“Right now it’s just us and British Columbia and it’s a fairly contained event at the moment,” Spichiger said.
Contributing: John Bacon