A clutch of kids gathers around entomologist Matt Buffington at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the yellow-and-black winged insects housed inside the large glass-fronted display case in front of them. The fearsome-looking bugs—with two-inch long bodies, quarter-inch stingers, and big heads dominated by huge round eyes and giant pincer-like mandibles—dwarf the honeybees in the display case next to them.
The children pelt Buffington with questions including whether the bugs might be in their own backyards. The answer: Not yet, and hopefully never, but that’s not a given.
The case contains the species Vespa mandarinia, commonly called the Asian giant hornet but better known as a “Murder Hornet.” (The Entomological Society of America is proposing a new common name—northern giant hornet.) The museum’s most-recent addition to the repository of the National Insect Collection is a two-inch specimen that was among the first to be found in the United States.
The giant hornet fitted with a radio transmitter, along with two combs from a nest found embedded in a segment of a red alder tree in Blaine, Washington, are on display through early December in the museum’s new exhibition “Our Places: Connecting People and Nature.” This is the first time the nest has gone on view outside Washington state. Visitors can also examine one of the special suits worn by scientists who neutralized the nests in October 2020.
The display of "Nest Zero," so named because it was the first to be found in the U.S., is a bit shiver-inducing, given even the little that is known about the predatory giant hornets. The species, first identified in 1852, is mainly feared for its capacity to wipe out honeybees. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reports that the giant hornets have been observed killing a bee every 14 seconds and that they can wipe out a colony in an hour or two. Vespa mandarinia is also known to pack an especially big wallop with its extra-long stinger, which delivers a more toxic venom. APHIS says that 30 to 50 people die in Japan each year from the stings, largely due to allergic reactions.
The display also serves as a warning of the potential perils when a non-native species embarks upon new territory.
Buffington works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Systematic Entomology Laboratory, which co-curates the National Insect Collection with the museum. In 2019, Buffington gave the final authoritative identification of a giant hornet found in Blaine, which had been sent to him by Washington state and APHIS for confirmation. The species’ normal range is northern India to East Asia.
“As soon as I put my determination in the database, all hell broke loose,” says Buffington. In the spring and summer of 2020, news outlets across the country and around the world gave vivid and sometime breathless descriptions of the insects and their potential to maraud bees and humans, at a time when Americans were already reeling from the initial phase of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The giant hornets prey on other social insects—such as wasps and honeybees—using those species’ larvae as food for their own larvae. The initial Washington state discovery of the invasion of Vespa mandarinia came after a beekeeper found piles of headless honeybees amassed in front of his apiary boxes. According to Buffington, giant hornets will kill worker bees to get at the larvae in their nests. Western honeybees are crucial in much of American agriculture. In the Pacific Northwest, they are pollinators for the all-important blueberry, apple and cherry crops.
Honeybees in Asia have developed a defense mechanism against the hornets. When a scout comes looking for their hive, bees surround the hornet and begin buzzing and flapping their wings. The heat produced suffocates the hornet. But western honeybees are defenseless.
“It would be really devastating to agriculture to have Vespa mandarinia spread like wildfire,” says Buffington, whose job in part is to document native and non-native species of the large order of ants, bees and wasps known as hymenoptera.
Vespa Mandarinia is “rather spectacular,” he says, noting its large size and its potential to quickly decimate native species.
The insect made its first known appearance in the West in August 2019 in Nanaimo, a town on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Scientists believe that the giant hornets likely hitched a ride on a ship crossing the Pacific and found their way out of the hold in the port of Vancouver. It is also possible that hornets have been smuggled into the West. The giant hornets are eaten throughout Asia in food and used in traditional medicine, according to APHIS. In Japan, live hornets are fermented in alcohol, and the venom excreted by the drowning insects is thought to have medicinal properties.
Within months, another hornet was found in White Rock, British Columbia, just north of the U.S. border, according to NestZero, Murder Hornets in Washington State, a documentary about the insects’ arrival.
Next came the beekeeper’s discovery in Custer, Washington, which led state agricultural authorities to ask the public to keep an eye out for the hornets and to collect specimens, if possible. One person found a dead hornet on their front porch and, incredibly, says Buffington, decided to take it to state authorities. “They could have just ignored it,” he says. That’s the specimen that came to him for final identification.
By mid-2020, entomologists devised a chemical lure to draw in and capture a live hornet, which they sedated with a blast of carbon dioxide. At first, they tried and failed to glue a small transmitter chip onto the hornet so they could track it back to a nest.
Eventually scientists from APHIS successfully attached a radio-transmitter wire to the insect’s yellow-and-black-striped thorax. They tracked the hornet with a three-pronged steel antenna, and in October 2020, it led them to home base: that red alder tree, located in a residential area. There, scientists watched multiple hornets fly into a small crack in the tree. Vespa mandarinia is known to favor underground cavities or hollowed-out tree roots or trunks for nests.
The trackers also had to devise special gear to cope with the hornet's longer stinger and more toxic venom. The heavy-duty white suit they developed—which looks to be straight out of a Hollywood sci-fi thriller—is too slippery for the giant hornets to grasp onto and thick enough to keep the stinger from reaching its target.
The nest in the red alder had seven combs, containing 76 newly-emerged queens and more than 100 suspected queens still developing inside. The nest was removed, and specimens were collected, but it’s likely that some escaped, given that in August 2021, scientists from Washington state and APHIS discovered another nest near Blaine, where they reportedly vacuumed out 113 worker hornets, captured 67 live hornets and eradicated some 1,500 of the insects in various stages of development.
The giant hornet’s range—how far it might travel from a nest—is not really known, says Buffington. It’s also unknown whether it could survive extreme cold or extreme heat. It may, for instance, need human assistance to get across the U.S. desert southwest.
With the thousands of ships entering U.S. ports each day, it likely would not have been possible to have prevented the species from embarking in America, says Buffington. “It’s a numbers game. We’d have to stop the economy in order to stop invasives and we can’t do that,” he says.
“So, we do what we can to prevent them from spreading.”
“Our Places: Connecting People and Nature,” on view through December 2022 at the National Museum of Natural History, explores personal stories of scientists and local community leaders working to protect natural environments.