‘Murder Hornets’ From Asia Spotted in US for First Time

May 3, 2020 Updated: May 4, 2020

The world’s largest species of hornet, which can wipe out a honeybee hive in a matter of hours, has been spotted for the first time in the United States, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA).

Asian giant hornets—also known as “murder hornets,” the “Giant Sparrow Bee,” and the “yak killer”—measure up to 2 inches long and prey on large insects, such as praying mantises, wasps, other hornets, and bees.

They are so lethal that just one can kill 40 European honey bees in one minute, while a small group of them can decimate an entire bee colony, decapitating them and taking the hive as their own and using the bodies of the dead bees to feed their young.

Their stingers are also long and strong enough to puncture beekeeping suits, and as a result, can be deadly to humans, as a group of them can expose victims to doses of toxic venom equivalent to that of a venomous snake. The venom can destroy red blood cells, resulting in kidney failure and eventual death.

A size comparison of the Asian giant hornet
A size comparison of the Asian giant hornet and several other insects. (Courtesy of Washington State Department of Agriculture)

Over a three-month period in 2013, Asian giant hornets killed 42 people and injured 1,675 more in China, while Japan reports that the deadly hornets kill 50 people a year.

Despite the killer hornets being native to temperate and tropical Eastern Asia, in December 2019, the WSDA received and verified four reports of Asian giant hornets near Blaine and Bellingham in Washington, the first sightings in the United States. Canada had also discovered Asian giant hornets in two locations in British Columbia in the fall of 2019. Scientists don’t know how the hornets entered North America.

The New York Times describes the hornet’s distinctive look as having “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.” The WSDA recently published a poster showing what the Asian Giant Hornet looks like and its notable difference in size compared to several other insects.

Researchers, eager to stop the hornets from establishing a home in the United States and decimating bee populations, have begun a full-scale hunt.

“This is our window to keep it from establishing,” Chris Looney, a WSDA entomologist, told The New York Times. “If we can’t do it in the next couple of years, it probably can’t be done.”