After weeks of trapping and searching, entomologists from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) have found an Asian giant hornet nest on private property in Blaine. It’s the first such nest found in the United States, and the agency will set out to destroy it Saturday.
Four live Asian giant hornets, known to some researchers as “murder hornets,” were caught in two traps this week and tagged, WSDA spokesperson Karla Sapp said Friday.
After tagging the hornets, the researchers followed one of them to a heavily wooded area, where WSDA managing entomologist Sven Spichiger said the signal from the radio tag was the loudest.
“At that point, I actually heard a hornet buzz over my head. … Then I heard another hornet buzz over my head, so I took a step back and realized we were actually standing right under the nest,” Spichiger said in a virtual news conference Friday afternoon.
The nest, which can hold up to 700 to 800 Asian giant hornets, is sitting inside a hollow tree cavity about 7 to 8 feet up, Spichiger said.
While he said there’s a possibility it’s an “occupied space where they had maybe robbed a honeybee nest,” it’s unlikely. “All indications as of right now is that this is the nest,” he said.
He and his team are planning to eradicate it at 4 a.m. Saturday, when they’ll use “vacuum extraction.”
“We’ll be jamming foam into the entrance and then Saran wrapping it, so that we can control the release of hornets from the nest,” he said. “This will allow us to do the vacuum extraction in a little more of a controlled environment.”
The hornets will then be vacuumed into a chamber, which will later be removed into a cooler filled with dry ice so researchers can examine the insects.
When the entomologists take out the nest, they’ll be wearing thick suits with a face shield — because the hornets are known to spray venom that can cause “debilitating” eye injuries, Spichiger said — and rubber gloves and boots.
The agency has been keen to find Asian giant hornet nests since the insects’ presence in the United States was first detected in December, in Blaine, and another of the hornets was trapped near Birch Bay in July of this year.
At nearly 2 inches long, Asian giant hornets are the world’s largest hornets; they have a distinct orange face and dark, teardrop-shaped eyes. They are an invasive species, but they seem to find the Pacific Northwest to be a hospitable new habitat, according to a recent study.
Scientists worry they could decimate honeybee populations in the U.S., which are on a decline.
“Only a few Asian giant hornets can take out 30,000 healthy honeybees in just a matter of a few hours,” Spichiger said Friday. “And unfortunately, the managed honeybees we use here have no natural defense against them that’s effective at all.”
Fortunately, he said, there have been no reports of attacks on honeybee hives in the state this fall.
“Destroying the nest before new queens emerge and mate will prevent the spread of this invasive pest,” the WSDA wrote in a statement this summer.
The hornets are set to enter what state entomologists call the “slaughter phase,” when they can kill an entire honeybee hive in a matter of hours.
During this phase, Spichiger has said, the hornets “visit apiaries, basically mark a hive, attack it in force, removing every bee from the hive, decapitating them, killing all of the workers and then spending the next few days harvesting the brood and the pupae out of the hive as a food source.”
It’s this process that earns the giant hornets their scary nickname.
As many as 50 people die each year from their stings in Japan. But Asian giant hornets don’t generally attack people unprompted, and we shouldn’t be too afraid of them, David Crowder, an entomology professor at Washington State University, told The Seattle Times in September.
“The name ‘murder hornet’ worries a lot of people,” he said. “And while it’s true the insects can kill people if they sting you enough times or if you have an allergic reaction to the sting, that’s not fundamentally different from other wasps and bees that can also kill people.”
There’s still time, however, before the species establishes a long-term home in the region — which would be considered the case if multiple nests pop up over consecutive years, Spichiger said.
“But it’s still a very small population … and we’re actively hunting them,” he said. “So there’s still a good chance we’ll be on top of it. If we’re five years out here, and I’m still telling you this, but from six different counties, we probably have a real problem. But we should be cautiously optimistic that we’re still only talking about Whatcom County at this point.”