Shared from the 5/4/2020 The Denver Post eEdition
DEADLY PEST By Mike Baker © The New York Times Co.
BLAINE, WASH.»In his decades of beekeeping, Ted McFall had never seen anything like it.
As he pulled his truck up to check on a group of hives near Custer, Wash., in November, he could spot from the window a mess of bee carcasses on the ground. As he looked closer, he saw apile of dead members of the colony in front of a hive and more carnage inside — thousands and thousands of bees with their heads torn from their bodies and no sign of a culprit.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around what could have done that,” McFall said.
Only later did he come to suspect that the killer was what some researchers simply call the “murder hornet.”
With queens that can grow to 2 inches long, Asian giant hornets can use mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins to wipe out a honeybee hive in a matter of hours, decapitating the bees and flying away with the thoraxes to feed their young. For larger targets, the hornet’s potent venom and stinger — long enough to puncture abeekeeping suit — make for an excruciating combination that victims have likened to hot metal driving into their skin.
In Japan, the hornets kill up to 50 people a year. Now, for the first time, they have arrived in the United States.
McFall still is not certain that Asian giant hornets were responsible for the plunder of his hive. But two of the predatory insects were discovered last fall in the northwest corner of Washington state, a few miles north of his property — the first sightings in the United States.
Scientists have since embarked on a full-scale hunt for the hornets, worried that the invaders could decimate bee populations in the United States and establish such a deep presence that all hope for eradication could be lost.
“This is our window to keep it from establishing,” said Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”
On a cold morning in early December, 2½ miles to the north of McFall’s property, Jeff Kornelis stepped on his front porch with his terrier-mix dog. He looked down to a jarring sight: “It was the biggest hornet I’d ever seen.”
The insect was dead, and after inspecting it, Kornelis had a hunch that it might be an Asian giant hornet. It did not make much sense, given his location in the world.
Beyond its size, the hornet has a distinctive look, with a cartoonishly fierce face featuring teardrop eyes like Spider-Man, orange and black stripes that extend down its body like a tiger, and broad, wispy wings like a small dragonfly.
Kornelis contacted the state, which came out to confirm that it was indeed an Asian giant hornet. Soon after, they learned that a local beekeeper in the area had also found one of the hornets.
Over the winter, state agriculture biologists and local beekeepers got to work, preparing for the coming season. Ruthie Danielsen, a beekeeper who has helped organize her peers to combat the hornet, unfurled a map across the hood of her vehicle, noting the places across Whatcom County where beekeepers have placed traps.
“Most people are scared to get stung by them,” Danielsen said. “We’re scared that they are going to totally destroy our hives.”
Adding to the uncertainty — and mystery — were some other discoveries of the Asian giant hornet across the border in Canada.
In November, a single hornet was seen in White Rock, British Columbia, perhaps 10 miles away from the discoveries in Washington state —likely too far for the hornets to be part of the same colony. Even earlier, there had been a hive discovered on Vancouver Island, across a strait that probably was too wide for a hornet to have crossed from the mainland.
Crews were able to track down the hive on Vancouver Island. Conrad Bérubé, a beekeeper and entomologist in the town of Nanaimo, was assigned to exterminate it.
He set out at night, when the hornets would be in their nest. But as he approached the hive, he said, the rustling of the brush and the shine of his flashlight awakened the colony. Before he had a chance to douse the nest with carbon dioxide, he felt the first searing stabs in his leg — through the bee suit and underlying sweatpants.
“It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh,” he said. He ended up getting stung at least seven times, some of the stings drawing blood.