It’s big. It’s bad. It will take off your head, eat your family and destroy your home. If you are a honeybee, that is.
Since it was found in the Pacific Northwest in 2019, the world’s largest hornet, Vespa mandarinia, has concerned environmentalists and beekeepers alike. The insect, native to parts of Asia, is usually around 1 1/2 inches long with a wide, mustard-colored head and a striped body. It has an appetite for bees and other insects and can decimate hives in hours. Its presence in North America has sparked a desperate effort to eradicate the small population before it is permanently established.
Mandarinia’s superlative size, painful sting and violent tendencies have made it a popular topic in the media, where it has been referred to as the “Asian giant hornet” and the “murder hornet.” On Monday, though, the Entomological Society of America, or ESA, introduced a new common name for the insect: the Northern giant hornet.
Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture who has been leading efforts to control the spread of the hornets, wrote the official proposal to change the insect’s name. He cited various reasons for doing so, including the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes during the COVID-19 pandemic. Connecting a scary insect, already associated with murder and attempted eradication, to Asia might stoke more anti-Asian sentiment, Looney said.
“In my personal experience I have heard statements like ‘another damn thing from China’ multiple times (irrespective of the fact that the hornets detected in North America likely originated in Japan or Korea),” Looney wrote.
“Calling it the Asian giant hornet wasn’t very descriptive because a number of related giant hornets come from Asia,” said Jessica Ware, an entomologist and president of the Entomological Society of America. “And then murder hornet wasn’t very descriptive, either, because they don’t murder people.”
Although its sting can induce swelling, excruciating pain and sometimes deadly allergic reactions, the northern giant hornet is not aggressive toward humans — and it’s unlikely that any could have “malice aforethought” in related fatalities. Even in targeting other insects, Ware raised doubts as to whether the hornet’s behavior could be described as murder. “I don’t know that insects are capable of murder,” she said. “We don’t say that lions are murderers when they hunt.”
The adoption of this new name is part of the Entomological Society’s Better Common Names Project, which was launched in 2021 to facilitate communication between scientists and the public. The project’s task force was also responsible for renaming the Lymantria dispar, the spongy moth. Previously, the insect’s common name contained a term that is derogatory to Romani people.
“I think it’s very important to avoid names that are associated with particular races or regions,” said Akito Kawahara, an entomologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History who supported the hornet’s name change. “Especially when they’re invading organisms — that’s really, really problematic.”
Kawahara grew up moving between the United States and Japan, where the northern giant hornet is native. In Japanese, the insect’s name translates to “sparrow hornet,” and, despite the fact that some people fry the hornets up to eat and put them in sake, Kawahara said that “it’s just treated like a regular insect.” In the United States, on the other hand, he continued, “all this media surrounds this organism because of what it does and because of the name. It’s a craze.”
Although common names of species are often linked to native regions or countries, they can quickly become outdated by discovery of expanded natural ranges and changing political boundaries. (Take, for instance, the Burmese python.) Still, names can be sticky, especially when they are given to particularly mesmerizing animals. “You would be surprised by some of the names that are out there,” Ware said.
When it comes to regional and nationalistic nomenclature, Kawahara said that these kinds of names “definitely, definitely” lead to a more emotionally balanced perception of species. As a child in Japan, he noticed that invasive organisms linked to the U.S. were often vilified. “And it’s all because of the name,” he said.