Last week, the New York Times published a story announcing the arrival of "murder hornets" to the United States.
The internet went abuzz.
"What's next?" asked the social media hive-mind. Another plague? Three days of darkness?
According to Julia Gregory, senior educator at the Tennessee Aquarium, "Everybody in Chattanooga can stand down. We don't need to worry about 'murder hornets' yet.'"
The Asian giant hornet, as it is actually called, is not in Tennessee, which the Tennessee Department of Agriculture confirmed in a statement released Thursday. Nor has it been found in any state outside of Washington, where two verified sightings occurred in late 2019.
Moreover, the so-called "murder hornet" is actually less murder-y than its nickname implies.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that Asian giant hornets are responsible for an estimated 30 to 50 deaths a year in Japan — less than the average 62 Americans killed each year by local wasps and bees. In both cases, death is most commonly caused by an allergic reaction to the venom.
The Asian giant hornet is not necessarily more venomous than other wasps or bees. However, it is the world's largest, about the size of a thumb, and therefore capable of administering a larger volume of venom.
But as sinister as that sounds, "hornets, like other wasps, are extremely beneficial to us," said Gregory.
How to ID an Asian giant hornet
> Usually 1.5-2 inches in length
> Large orange/yellow head with prominent eyes
> Black and yellow striped abdomen
> Forms colonies that nest in the ground
Native to Southeast Asia, the larvae of Asian giant hornets are carnivorous. To feed their young, adult hornets depend on larger insects, including many common pests that plague farmers in parts of Japan, China, India and Sri Lanka.
The same is true for wasps in North America, said Gregory, where in late spring, females hunt caterpillars, often targeting cornearms, armyworms, loopers and hornworms.
"Those caterpillars are the ones that would eat up the cabbages, lettuce, tomatoes and corn in your garden. Meanwhile, the adult hornet is pollinating plants in your garden while gathering nectar and pollen to feed herself," Gregory said.
The real concern with Asian giant hornets, however, is that they are known to attack and destroy honey bee colonies.
Unlike Asian honey bees, which evolved alongside the hornets and therefore developed defenses against them, European honey bees kept in the U.S. have no natural defenses against the non-native insect.
The only true hornet in North America is the European hornet, which was introduced in the 1800s. Not surprisingly, it is the insect most commonly mistaken for the invasive look-alike. However there are key differences. For starters, European hornets, at less than an inch long, are smaller than Asian giant hornets.
Moreover, look for color variations. Asian giant hornets are banded yellow, black and brown whereas Europeans have black near their heads and yellow near their hind ends with rows of teardrop-like patterns in-between.
Those who spot what they believe to be an Asian giant hornet should take clear photos of the hornet and email them to email@example.com.
Honey bee colonies in the U.S. have been in decline for more three decades, and the threat of a new invasive predator could have devastating impacts on both bees and agriculture, an industry that depends on the pollinator.
According to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, the risk of attacks on honey bees occurs only in late summer when the hornets are in search of extra protein. While there is no evidence that populations of Asian giant hornets are spreading, the department is taking precautionary measures to protects local bees.
On July 1, it will begin to set out traps at bee nurseries in order to collect and monitor the presence of invasive species, including Asian giant hornets.
In the meantime, the department wrote in its statement, "the [Asian giant hornet] does not attack people unless it feels threatened," which is the case for most wasps and bees.
As Gregory suggests, "If the location of [a hornet's nest] doesn't interfere with human traffic, nothing is harmed by letting it be."
Reach Sunny Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org.