RICHMOND, Va. -- No, the scary looking hornet you found in Virginia is almost certainly not the so-called “murder hornet,” according to longtime Virginia entomologists. A few Asian giant hornets, which are disturbingly large in size and native to southeast Asia, were discovered late last year in Washington state.
Recently, social media buzz has spread around the country voicing concern the insects were spreading in the United States. Experts said they pose little risk to humans, although their sting is very painful, but can decimate honey bee populations.
Also recently, CBS 6 has received multiple messages and photos from viewers who think they found one in Virginia.
Dr. Tim Kring, the head of the Entomology Department at Virginia Tech, said he too has received tons of messages from Virginians claiming to have found one.
“I got 100 emails on Sunday if that’s any indication. All about the hornet, so I do have my filter set to look at them,” Dr. Kring said.
State officials and multiple local entomologists stress there have been zero Asian giant hornets found in Virginia, ever. Dr. Kring said there is little evidence yet that they have actually taken hold in the Pacific Northwest. The first reported sighting was in Vancouvers in September 2019.
“One nest. One queen. They killed it right away,” Dr. Kring said. “About a month later, they found two dead adults [hornets] in Washington state, which is about 40 miles away. They could have come from that one nest; they probably did not, but they could have. There were no other live insects found after that September, so no live insects have ever been found in the United States.”
“I would probably say east of the Rockies, you didn’t see one. What we know about them in other countries where they exist, it moved very slowly. About 40 miles a year is how long it took to go across land when it invaded new territories,” he continued.
Attaching the name “murder hornet” to the insect has helped the confusion spread in the United States, said Dr. Karen Kester, an entomologist at VCU. Dr. Kester pointed to reports that 30-40 people per year die from a sting by the Asian giant hornets in their native habitats. An average of 62 people die each year in the United States from beee, wasp, and hornet stings, according to the CDC.
“Of course, we’re not a fan of that kind of name. The murder hornet name comes from what it does to bees and not people,” Dr. Kring explained. “Later in the season, the hornets will group en masse and attack a hive and just kill them, not eat them. Kill them so they can get to the brood of the hive.”
So if Asian giant hornets are not in Virginia or the east coast of the United States, what are people confusing them with? Both Kring and Kester said two species that have been in Virginia for centuries are the likely culprits: European hornets and cicada-killers.
“We have several hornets that are generally similar to this. Really big, get in your face size hornets,” Dr. Kring said.
The cicada-killers are not active until later in the summer, are much smaller than Asian giant hornets, and display different patterning and coloration. European hornets look very similar to Asian giant hornets, Dr. Kring said, but like the cicada-killers never grown larger than about an inch and a quarter.
“One way to tell really quickly, the Asian giant hornet has this orange, yellow, bright head that looks like a basketball. That is not what the European hornet looks like. It doesn’t have that big head,” Dr. Kring said.
Asian giant hornets would be an invasive species in Virginia and could cause problems for our local ecosystems and bee populations, if they arrived. Virginia officials said they continue to inspect all shipping containers that enter Virginia ports.
“We do all that we can to ensure that we protect our state and certainly the bees that we have in the state that are so important. Those pollinators that we have that are really important to our number one industry: agriculture,” said Bettina Ring, Va. Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry
Even though he is an expert in the field, Dr. Kring said some people do not believe him when they send him insects they think are Asian giant hornets. If you find an insect and want it properly identified by experts, you can send a photo or safely collected sample to your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. (https://ext.vt.edu/offices.html)
Click here to learn more about the Asian giant hornet.