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‘Fascinating’ Asian hornets don’t deserve ‘murder’ moniker: expert

Michael Talbot | posted Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

There’s only been a handful of confirmed sightings of Asian hornets in North America, but the swarm of ominous headlines has taken on biblical proportions.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the arrival of so-called ‘murder hornets’ made it feel like 2020 was the butt end of a cruel joke. Not only did we have a deadly virus to contend with, but we were now suddenly facing an imminent invasion of mammoth bees loaded with heart-stopping venom?

It was fodder for some amusing social media memes as the battered public pictured a masochistic supreme being unleashing a cherry-on-the-top plague upon us when we were already beaten down by the cruelness of COVID-19.

But according to one of Canada’s most renowned bee experts, the reality is far more mundane and innocuous.

Matthias Buck has been the assistant curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Royal Alberta Museum since 2009. Before that he spent nearly a decade as the curator of the insect collection at the University of Guelph.

“I’m an expert on these groups of wasps,” Buck said. “I’m kind of one of the very few people in North America that studied these creatures for a living.”

Buck is adamant that the Asian hornet doesn’t deserve its ‘murder’ moniker.

“Putting labels on species like that just leads to fear and irrational reactions,” he argues. “They are not aggressive, they will sting only when their nests get disturbed or when they otherwise feel under duress, like if you harass them or you grab one or if one flies under your jacket and then is in a confined space, they will feel threatened and they will sting. They will never attack you completely unprovoked. It just doesn’t make sense biologically. They are not out there to pick a fight.”

That doesn’t mean he thinks they’re the bee’s knees. Buck acknowledges that the largest known hornet species packs a wallop of venom that could prove life-threatening to those with allergies. But the largest concern is an economic sting.

The predatory Asian hornet targets honey bees, which could impact several related industries.

“The main concern would be for beekeepers because it would start a certain economic damage,” he noted. “But it would not wipe out beekeeping, because it’s not doing it other areas of the world. China is a major honey producer worldwide and they have the hornet … but it will inflict a certain economic damage.”

“They will never attack you completely unprovoked. It just doesn’t make sense biologically. They are not out there to pick a fight.”

One of the things that makes Asian hornets so unique is the same thing that makes them such a formidable threat to honey bees.

“Unlike most other social wasps, (Asian hornets) are able to communicate the location of a food source like a beehive to their nestmates,” Buck explained. “And when they attack a beehive it’s a coordinated attack.

“Only because they have developed that ability are they able to take down a beehive, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to do that.”

“The ecosystem here is perfectly able to function without honey bees,” he adds, noting that honey bees are not native to North America. “But we have certain crops that are heavily dependent on honey bee pollination.”

How dangerous are they to humans?

While the impressive size of Asian hornets makes them quite conspicuous and easy to avoid, it also means they’re loaded with a considerable amount of venom.

“They are slightly (more dangerous than other hornets) because the quantity of venom is higher,” Buck said. “The toxicity of the venom is not higher. It’s definitely not the most toxic venom, but the quantity is higher so therefore it would typically take fewer stings to get you into trouble.

“The biggest danger is to people that have allergic reactions. If you’re allergic, one sting would totally be enough to get you into a life-threatening situation. Otherwise it’s going to be a heck of a pain, but you will live.”

Buck said it would take dozens of stings to threaten the life of a healthy, non-allergic person — a situation that would likely only take place if you disturbed a nest and didn’t have the ability to flee.

He adds that Asian hornets nest in the ground, so it is conceivable that a person or pet could unknowingly disturb a nest. But usually, the sheer size of the hornets provides ample warning and incentive to steer clear.

“They are very large so they are easy to see,” he explained. “A lot of the stinging incidents happen, like with yellow jackets, when they are relatively small and easy to overlook. These ones are not easy to overlook. They are so big people notice them and people’s instinctive reaction is to get out of the way and that’s a good reaction, especially when you are around a nest. Always give them their space and you will be fine. ”

Buck also points out that the nests would only be found in heavily wooded areas.

“They are not going to be become established in downtown Toronto.”

Are they coming to Ontario?

Asian hornets have been confirmed in British Columbia, but they’re not widespread and Buck doesn’t think they’ll become established enough to spread to Ontario.

“Now they might have a foothold in B.C. (but) before it would be able to spread to Ontario it would have to have a thriving population in B.C. otherwise they won’t spread that quickly.

“If they are very rare in B.C. then the likelihood of one getting carried to Ontario is fairly low.”

“They have to keep an eye on it in the west and should do everything they can to try to exterminate it because it’s never a good thing to have exotic species become established. It should always be avoided.”

Buck explained how the insects can inadvertently be introduced to new regions of the world.

“What typically happens is they (are transported) as stowaways accidentally. Because of the shipping of goods, worldwide trade, they end up in a shipping container or on a truck or on a rail car and then they can get transported around.”

The bee expert doesn’t just find all the sensational ‘murder hornet’ headlines inflammatory and annoying, he also thinks they can be dangerous.

“One of my fears is that it will cause a backlash against some of the native species that are beneficial and not a concern. And that is very regrettable.

“I see a lot of false reports coming now about people thinking they have seen one. They are not in Ontario. They’ve been found in B.C. Their chances of now, just one year after they first showed up in B.C., showing up in Ontario are extremely low.

“They are fascinating,” he concludes. “Like all social insects they have fascinating behaviours. It’s just because honey bees are one of their preferred prey that puts them in our bad books, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. In nature they all have their own role and their own purpose.

“They are impressive insects.”

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