Alongside the very serious things happening in the world at this very moment, and with Capitol Hill being an epicenter, in particular, the natural world keeps churning. I am not writing this as a tone deaf naturalist, nor as someone who completely separates environmental harm from racial injustice (they often go hand in hand). I write this because the 24-hour news cycle can tend to drive us towards myopia, and in the worst cases can lead to serious misunderstandings about many things in the world, including nature. For the past month or so, the term “Murder Hornet” has kept drifting into my feed and it’s time to talk about this insect, and this term.
Let’s start off by dispelling the term “Murder Hornet.” The species in question is the Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia, the largest species of hornet in the world, native to much of East Asia. Nearly all species in the family Vespidae are predators and the Asian giant hornet is no different, with a taste for colonies of wasps as well as social bees, like honey bees. Asian giant hornets are no more murders than Bald Eagles are. They merely hunt prey and are good at what they do.
And they are here in Washington.
One of the concerns around their arrival is that these hornets are eusocial. Simplistically, this means they live in interrelated groups with a reproductive queen and many non-reproductive females, sisters who do the work of keeping the colony safe and happy. Males are only part of the story for breeding, typically leaving to mate with queens elsewhere. Many species of hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps), including the European honeybee are eusocial, but this system extends into mammals, termites, and other marine invertebrates. The reason seeing one or two hornets is alarming is that there could be established colonies somewhere, which means there’s potential for more. One of the two found in Whatcom County was a mated queen and could have had a colony, but it will no longer survive without her presence.
On a side note, eusociality is why I can’t stand animated movies about honey bees. There are always male bees living alongside the females, doing the same things. Not only is it not realistic, (yes I am aware they are imaginary stories), it’s far less interesting. It reminds me of the phrase “the book is better than the movie.” Virtually all ants and honey bees you see are females, sisters.
I take huge issue with the term “murder hornet,” though, not just because it’s not realistic, it’s willfully sensationalist. The term feels apocalyptic, and some of the reporting around these hornet has seemed encouraging of fear driven by ignorance. They seem to call us to become vespid vigilantes. Fake signs about them have even shown up across the state. As of now, there have only been two Asian giant hornets found in the state, near the Canadian border. Just two individuals. (There has been another scare with this species in the past.)
Where they came from? The best guess is from something imported from Asia via the nearby port in British Columbia. Insects are a very common stowaway in shipments of all kinds.
But ultimately I worry the message of state entomologists will be twisted by fear, and bad reporting, and lead to mindless extermination of native insects. Many of us have been socialized to be afraid of anything bee-like, not to distinguish insect diversity. Asian giant hornets are exceedingly large. And, there are also large parasitic wasps they are a part of functional ecosystems. Many a gentle bumblebee, merely collecting pollen, and pollinating our tomatoes could be perceived as a threat. They can pose a threat to humans if you were to somehow find one and get stung, but they are most dangerous to people who already have allergic reactions to bee and wasp stings.
There is currently little worry about Asian giant hornets on the Hill, but I am writing about them here because we all can use continual encouragement to critically analyze situations. The important anti-racism work that has momentum in our country right now relies on fact-driven analysis, while it also pulls hard at our emotions. Though I’d never compare systemic racism to how we consider a potentially troublesome hornet, there are parallels in how the media has treated this subject and to how some people have responded.
Make no mistake, there are real reasons to be concerned with the potential for Asian giant hornets establishing in our state and there are countless examples of novel species running amok in environments they are introduced into. Yet, ultimately the fear around the hornets is related to agriculture and our honey bees, (we have less to fear for our personal safety and there is no current evidence that suggests they’ll impact our native solitary bees). European honey bees are vital to many agricultural practices. Though Asian giant hornets eat lots of other insects, the main worry seems to be that as effective predators they’ll have an impact on our already flagging domesticated bee colonies. They are very good at what they do, and European honey bees have not adapted to deal with the threat. (Asian honey bees have: they forming a ball of bees around the predator and rapidly vibrate their wing muscles to fatally cook the hornet, and a few of their own.)
Yet again that critical mind has to come into to play: there are far greater threats to bees, and their role in our food production, than these hornets. Yes, if we found ourselves with many colonies of these hornets they could become an issue. But we haven’t. And if we’re worried about native and managed bee populations, (European honey bees are not native, and are one of around 400 species of bees in Washington), we should be addressing a host of other issues more seriously. Like land and agro-chemical usage, pesticides, habitat loss, and of course, climate change.
Words and names have power. Let’s use them accurately, no matter the subject. Pointing fingers at these hornets and giving them scary names feels like scapegoating and hate mongering, time honored traditions of White supremacists and eco-fascists alike. We have many choices to make right now. Choosing how we treat the world we rely on, and the people in our communities are interrelated. Reactions based on the title of a news piece will never help us; don’t take my word for it, read up!
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