Meet the Scientist Who Knows the Buzz About the Northern Giant Hornet

Research entomologist Matt Buffington monitors new insect arrivals in North America to see if they cause trouble for native species

Buffington investigates new species of insects – like the Asian giant hornet – that have made their way to North America, determining which ones are harmful invaders. USDA

In December 2019, biologists in Washington state made a startling discovery – an Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) in the United States for the first time. Native to Eastern Asia and sometimes referred to as a “murder hornet,” this insect sparked the concern of American entomologists who feared this invasive giant could zap native bee populations.

The hornet’s “nest zero,” along with other invasive species, stands on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for the first time in its new exhibit, “Our Places,” which is focused on exploring the interaction between humans and nature. Highlighting invasive species like Asian giant hornets illustrates that we impact ecosystems by moving devastating hitchhikers to new lands.

Matt Buffington, a research entomologist with the USDA and the museum, studies invasive insects like the Asian giant hornet to learn which new bugs are likely to cause trouble. As museum visitors get the first glimpse of “nest zero,” meet a SI-entist who knows all about these notorious hornets and other invaders.
Sometimes Buffington’s work takes him to the site of the possible invaders to collect specimens, like his recent collecting expedition in Panama. Lourdes Chamorro, ARS-USDA

What sparked your interest in studying bugs?

As a kid, I loved collecting – but not insects…that I discovered as an undergrad at University of California, Riverside. I didn’t even know what entomology was at that point, but chance favored me getting a job as a technician sorting insect samples. I was hired, and my life changed. I couldn’t believe what was under the scope while I was sorting, and when I visited the research museum for the first time, I was informed that most of the wasps I had sorted were new to science. I couldn’t believe it, species that had not yet been described! I was hooked and literally never looked back.

What questions currently drive your research?

Part of my research now is to understand where species are endemic, and where they have “shown up” either on their own or through human activities. Most recently, I have been working on “unintentional biological control,” meaning when a natural enemy of a pest finds its way to North America.

For the past 100 years or so, we have used biological control to kill these invasive bugs that affect our agriculture: this means going to the native home of the invasive pest and find out why the insects aren’t a pest in their native range. Usually, there’s a natural enemy that kills the insect of concern in the native range…and this natural enemy is not present in the pests’ new home. By going to the native home and finding natural enemies we can import them and release them against the pest. That’s called classical biological control. It’s all very regulated to avoid catastrophe. However, there appears to be an increase in natural enemies of invasive pests that find their way here without our help. This is unintentional biological control.

On one hand, this phenomenon is super helpful; on the other hand, we are not sure what the long term implications of unintentional biological control really are. I think it’s amazing as the natural enemy is itself an invasive species, but it gets a pass because it’s helpful. But perhaps their being here has implications we’re not yet aware of.

In order to preserve insect specimens for future study, they are stored in freezers at extremely low temperatures – as low as minus 190 degrees Celsius. Buffington and colleague Daniel DiMichele process an Asian giant hornet specimen for freezing. Steve Ausmus, USDA

What are the biggest concerns when it comes to invasive insects?

Invasive species can be harmful in two ways: disruption of our native ecosystem and agriculture. In rare cases, such as Emerald Ash Borer and Brown Marmorated Stinkbug, an invasive bug can become a household menace! And in the most extreme cases, invasive species can lead to extinction of other species.

In all cases, invasive insects cause a disruption in how species interact with each other, and this disruption often harms the plants and animals that already live here, and the agriculture that we depend on. It can be a total mess!

Now, nobody is a fan of hornets – especially giant ones. But what exactly about the arrival of the Asian giant hornet caused such a hubbub?

The Asian giant hornet is a unique non-native species because they aggressively attack another insect species that we depend on: the honeybee. The honeybee – while capable of inflicting a painful sting – is also a beloved friend of humans and can even be found in children's stories. Imagine a beehive being annihilated by a large hornet…the horror!

The hornet is simply trying to get by though, just like the rest of us. The Asian giant hornet uses the protein secured from a honeybee nest to sustain its own nest and feed their own, growing larva. They are, in fact, very good parents!

But I think the real reason these hornets made such a media frenzy is their unabashedly awesome nickname “murder hornet.” I mean, who isn’t going to pay attention to that?

Now that it’s been a couple of years since the hornet’s arrival in the US, what was their ultimate impact? Would you say they were as concerning as you expected?

It’s still too early to know their impact. At this point, the questions are: are there any more nests out there, where else in North America can they survive, and where did these hornets come from in the first place?

This is a multi-task extravaganza involving state, local, and federal scientists, as well as citizen scientists that are on the lookout for giant hornet scouts and nests.

Buffington's work, along with "nest zero" and a slew of hornet specimens, is featured in the museum's new "Our Places" exhibition. Smithsonian Institution

What can we learn from studying invasive insects like these hornets?

First and foremost, we can learn how plants and animals move around the Earth. They’ve been doing this for millions of years, and now we have humans around to move things on planes and boats. The speed and modes of transport for invasive creatures have changed dramatically, and we can learn a lot about this process by studying them.

Another thing we can learn is how quickly a new species can impact the local ecosystem. In fact, we can learn a great deal about ecosystems through impacts from non-natives! It sounds a bit strange, but when a system is very balanced, it can be hard to determine what keeps it that way. But as soon as an ecosystem is knocked out of balance, we can piece together exactly how that happened and why.

Lastly, I think we can all learn that we all have a role to play in protecting our agricultural and natural resources. If we want a ready food supply, a reduced dependency on pesticides, and healthy ecosystems to enjoy, we all need to be aware of the impact of non-native species on our environment and try to limit their importation and spread.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Meet a SI-entist: The Smithsonian is so much more than its world-renowned exhibits and artifacts. It is a hub of scientific exploration for hundreds of researchers from around the world. Once a month, we’ll introduce you to a Smithsonian Institution scientist (or SI-entist) and the fascinating work they do behind the scenes at the National Museum of Natural History.

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