Like many Americans, filmmaker Michael Paul Stephenson was intrigued by The New York Times story last May about the arrival of an invasive species in America. But Stephenson is the only one who moved his family from Los Angeles to Bellingham to chronicle the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s search for the Asian giant hornet, chronicled in the new documentary film “Attack of the Murder Hornets,” streaming Feb. 20 on discovery+.
The buzzworthy film, in all senses, focuses on a mix of citizen scientists — including Whatcom County beekeepers Ruthie Danielsen of Blaine and Ted McFall of Custer, and Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologist Chris Looney — who attempt to find the hornets’ nest.
Stephenson, a former child actor who chronicled his starring role in the cult horror flick “Trolls 2” in the 2009 documentary “Best Worst Movie,” got the green light from discovery+ to make “Attack of the Murder Hornets” last summer, and began following Looney and his search for murder hornets (aka Vespa mandarinia) in September. The entire process from the idea to the film’s completion took just eight months, warp speed compared to the years it can take to produce some documentaries.
At the outset, there was no guarantee that the hours Stephenson spent following Looney would ultimately lead to the discovery of a murder hornet’s nest.
“It’s the sort of thing that gives me a lot of anxiety because I realized how much of an edge it is having that moment [of finding the nest] or not,” Stephenson says. “When you set out to make a nonfiction film, you’re hanging onto the tail of a dragon. I’m always driven by characters first and the world being revealed around characters I care about, but you hope they find a nest.”
Looney, who lives in Olympia where he manages the state entomology lab, says the addition of a film crew to his tracking work proved intrusive but ultimately beneficial, as the film will help better educate the public on the murder hornet’s threat.
“Everything took longer. I had to explain things repeatedly that I normally wouldn’t be talking about and all of my field time expanded,” Looney says. “That said, I was really convinced this group of filmmakers wanted to portray what we do in this particular phenomenon accurately and respectfully.”
“Attack of the Murder Hornets” leans into its B-movie-inspired title as much as a documentary can, including a hornet’s-eye view of flying through a Washington forest, achieved via a small drone.
Beekeeper McFall, who discovered murder hornets had decapitated 60,000 of his honeybees, acknowledged “Attack of the Murder Hornets” embraces its pop culture moment and plays out like a horror movie, but beyond the entertainment value it also informs about the consequences to beekeeping businesses and the overall ecosystem if these hornets are not eradicated.
“And even though it seems like a work of fiction, the threat is real,” McFall says. “It’s here on U.S. soil and the stakes are huge.”
The film recounts Looney’s ultimately successful mission — he comes off as the story’s no-nonsense, hardworking hero — followed by a last-act twist that Stephenson says, “Goes to show the obstacles that science continues to face in so many different directions.”
A more pleasant surprise, Stephenson says, was how the film reveals government working with people and the value of public service.
“That was something I had never considered,” he says. “Here was this group of citizen scientists and scientists who are working together on the front lines of this whole thing and really cooperating and really supporting each other.”
Stephenson is still living in Bellingham, “in no real hurry to go back to L.A.,” while Looney and his co-workers gear up for spring when the search for additional murder hornet nests resumes.
“We did pick up some late-season stragglers up in Canada,” Looney says. “The pattern of hornet captures from last year [in Washington and British Columbia] is best explained by another nest or two in the area.”