Stop calling it the “murder hornet”

Recently, news outlets have been spreading fear of the “murder hornet” invading the United States. To be clear, the “murder hornet”, actually known as the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), does not pose a direct threat to humans. While a sting from this hornet may hurt, Asian giant hornets are generally not aggressive unless provoked. Stinging is a form of protection, and like any stinging insect, the Asian giant hornet is not out to sting you.

Instead, Asian giant hornets are after much smaller prey: honey bees.  Asian giant hornets are carnivores, meaning they feed insects to their developing young. A honey bee colony, with tens of thousands of bees, is a great place to collect protein-rich food. In one foraging trip, one Asian giant hornet can kill up to 40 honey bees! As you might imagine, a whole colony of these hornets could be fatal to a honey bee colony.

In their native range of eastern and southeastern Asia, Asian giant hornets have been predating on Asian honey bees (Apis cerana) for a long time. In response, Asian honey bees have adapted a defense strategy: heat. When the hornet invader is detected, worker bees sound the alarm by shaking their abdomens. Then, in a swift, coordinated response, hundreds of honey bees swarm the hornet and contract their flight muscles, generating intense heat. Together, the worker bees heat the hornet to about 117 °F, killing the intruder. As it happens, the hornet can only withstand temperatures up to 115 °F, while Asian honey bee workers can withstand temperatures up to 118 °F. Evolution is a beautiful thing.

Sterile female worker bees perform all the tasks in the colony, including taking care of the queen (white paint mark) and defending the hive from intruders.

But, the Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) that are managed in North America have not evolved with this predator and are not as well equipped to defend themselves. This is why we need to be worried about the Asian giant hornet. Managed honey bees provide valuable economic and ecosystem services such as beekeeper livelihoods and agricultural pollination—the Asian giant hornet jeopardizes the security of these services.

While this is certainly cause for concern, panic is unwarranted. Since August 2019, the Asian giant hornet has been spotted just three times in Washington State and three times in British Columbia. Following a recent report of a honey bee colony death that resembled the work of this hornet in Washington (although it is unconfirmed), Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologists are on the hunt to stop the hornet before it spreads.

Fortunately, Asian giant hornets have not been spotted on the east coast, and it would likely take a while for them to get here. As with any introduced species, however, attempts should be made to spot the hornets early on. If you think you have seen an Asian giant hornet in Massachusetts (which is currently highly unlikely) you can report a sighting to the Massachusetts Introduced Pests Outreach Project.

Identifying Asian giant hornets: The European hornet (Vespa crabro) is often confused for the Asian giant hornet. There are three main differences between these hornets:

  1. Size The Asian giant hornet is slightly bigger than the European hornet (photos not to scale, enlarged for detail).
  2. Stripes The Asian giant hornet has regular black-orange stripes along its abdomen; the European hornet has irregular brown-yellow stripes.
  3. Head The Asian giant hornet has an orange head; the European hornet has a golden yellow head.
LEFT: Asian giant hornet, Washington State Department of Agriculture, Flickr
RIGHT: European hornet, Chris Moody, Flickr

To learn more about the Asian giant hornet, please read this USDA report instead of news articles. To learn more about how you can help mitigate the establishment of introduced species in general, check out these resources:

Tufts University Medford-Somerville is now a Bee Campus USA!

TPI is excited to announce that we have reached our goal: Tufts University Medford-Somerville has become the first urban educational institution in Massachusetts to be certified as an affiliate of the Bee Campus USA program! Bee Campus USA is designed to marshal the strengths of educational campuses for the benefit of pollinators via the creation of pollinator habitat, service-learning projects, and educational programming.

Funded by the Tufts Green Fund in 2019, we created TPI as an ecological, educational, and collaborative effort to bolster pollinator health and promote community awareness on the Medford-Somerville campus. If you’ve been keeping up with our blog, you may have heard that we have planted three pollinator-friendly gardens on the Medford-Somerville campus, which provide forage for pollinators from May through October. In just one year, we reached over 2,000 people via public-facing events such as Tufts Community Day, workshops, lectures, and the recent screening of The Pollinators. We have also advised pollinator conservation efforts at other universities in the Boston Area (e.g. Lesley University, Northeastern University) as well as other Tufts campuses. In this year’s round of Green Fund projects, the Sustainability Committee at the School of Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts was awarded funds to create pollinator-friendly gardens on their Boston campus. We cannot wait to help the SMFA Sustainability Committee create signage and select plants for their gardens!

TPI members with Peter Nelson, director of The Pollinators, following our Pollinator Fair (complete with honey tasting!) and film screening.
Nick Dorian teaches young community members about which crops are pollinated by bees at Tufts Community Day.

Elizabeth Crone, Professor of Biology and TPI member, is excited about the opportunities for student research and service-learning with the Medford-Somerville gardens: “In the same way that National Parks were a new idea in the early 1900’s, urban pollinator gardens are the next frontier for conserving insect diversity in the 21st century.” Our on-campus pollinator gardens have already been integrated into a Tufts undergraduate-level course, “Insect Pollinators and Real-world Science,” where students visited a garden and created their own pollinator-specific planting guides. We are now working to create undergraduate research projects to survey pollinator biodiversity and the food resources (nectar and pollen) the gardens provide, and recently created an iNaturalist Project for community scientists interested in contributing biodiversity data.

Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA are initiatives of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, with offices across the country. Bee City USA’s mission is to galvanize communities and campuses to sustain pollinators by providing them with healthy habitat, rich in a variety of native plants, i.e. food resources for pollinators. Animal pollinators such as bumble bees, sweat bees, mason bees, honey bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, hummingbirds and many others are responsible for the reproduction of almost ninety percent of the world’s flowering plant species. In fact, one in every three bites of food we consume is thanks to animal pollinators, specifically insects!

“The program aspires to make people more PC—pollinator conscious, that is,” said Scott Hoffman Black, Xerces’ executive director. “If lots of individuals and communities begin planting native, pesticide-free flowering trees, shrubs and perennials, it will help to sustain many, many species of pollinators.”

We would like to thank to the Tufts Green Fund for funding this project, the Garden Club of America for their support, and our current and past members for helping us toward our goal! As a certified Bee Campus USA, we will continue doing outreach, education, and research, and spreading the pollinator love!

TPI supports pollinators by cultivating native plants on the Medford-Somerville campus. Here, a monarch collects nectar from blazing star.