Or, how two “great sparrow bees” incited a national hunt for alleged Chinese alien invaders
BLAINE, Washington––How did the Asian giant hornet, known for centuries in Japan as the “great sparrow bee,” generally regarded as beneficial to farmers for killing insect pests, suddenly become feared in the U.S. as the so-called “murder hornet”?
After only two, count ‘em two, “great sparrow bees” have ever been found in the U.S.?
Those two were found, stone dead, in Blaine, Washington, along the U.S./Canadian border, in early December 2019, almost six months before the panic started.
Flew around a bird feeder
“The property owner also reporting seeing a live giant hornet flying around a bird feeder and then into the forest on December 8, 2019,” reported Don Sweeney of the Tacoma News-Tribune.
“Canadian officials reported destroying a large nest in British Columbia in August, officials say,” Sweeney added. “Laboratory findings determined that the specimens collected from British Columbia and Washington State were from different colonies, thus suggesting that there were two simultaneous introductions of the Asian giant hornet to North America within approximately 50 miles of one another.”
That, so far, is the extent of any confirmation of Asian giant hornets, Vespa mandarinia in Latin taxonomy, existing in either the U.S. or Canada.
Big and colorful as Asian giant hornets are, and as voracious as they are as an apex predator among insects, they mostly mind their own business in regard to humans, other mammals, and birds.
More venom per strike
Asian giant hornet venom, like the venom of any bee, wasp, or hornet, can make a sting painful, and can be deadly to humans who are allergic to insect venoms, but giant Asian hornet venom is only about a third as dangerous, milliliter for milliliter, as the upper end for wasps.
An Asian giant hornet sting tends to be more serious than the average hornet sting simply because the giant Asian hornet delivers more venom per strike.
Asian giant hornet habitat range appears to be limited to low-lying pine forests. They typically make their nests among rotting pine roots, recycling burrows dug by small mammals and snakes. They don’t cross bodies of water, stay out of open plains, and don’t ascend over high mountains.
Asian giant hornets, even if thriving in the low-lying pine forests along the Salish Sea and Puget Sound regions of British Columbia and Northern Washington, would have difficulty spreading as far south as the Olympic Peninsula, on the south side of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.
The “tiger head bee” & “general officer hornet”
Neither could Asian giant hornets spread east, without human help, beyond the foothills of the Cascades mountains, and/or spread north or west, where there is no hospitable habitat to be found.
Humans have apparently accidentally translocated some Asian giant hornets from somewhere on the far side of the Pacific Ocean to the British Columbia/Washington border region, and might accidentally translocate more, but not easily.
Even if further accidental translocation does occur, moreover, Asian giant hornets are already native to nations including nearly half the human population of the world, without provoking much fuss or panic, including China, Taiwan, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, and parts of southern Russia.
The “great sparrow bee” is also known in China, where it is abundant, as the “tiger head bee,” for black-and-yellow coloration, and in Korea as the “general officer hornet,” for being of conspicuous size.
But though either tigers or general officers may become dangerous, and may be feared on that account, the “great sparrow bee” has rarely been regarded as a threat to humans––until now, when the so-called “murder hornet” has suddenly become the subject of all-points bulletins issued by multiple federal and state agencies.
Consider the back story, much of which has more to do with bats than with hornets, specifically the Chinese bats among whom the COVID-19 coronavirus evolved.
Some of those bats may eat Asian giant hornets. After all, most insectivorous bats do eat hornets––and bees and wasps, too.
“Asian giant hornet venom is not deadly when ingested raw,” observed Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases founder Jack Woodall (1935-2016) in 2013.
In fact, Asian giant hornet venom has been used as an ingredient in some Asian-made “energy drinks,” though scientific testing has discovered no evidence that the venom actually aids athletic performance.
Added Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases infectious diseases moderator Tam Garland, of Texas A&M University, to the 2013 discussion, “Due to the fact that the Asian giant hornet is an apex predator within its environment, it has no real natural predators,” at least not predators who specialize in eating the hornet.
“Humans pose the biggest threat to [the Asian giant hornet], Garland opined, “mainly as they are consumed as part of normal diets in the areas where they are found. This is particularly common in the mountains of Japan where the Asian giant hornet populations are most abundant.”
Pangolins & Woodstock
The Asian giant hornet is also on the menu for pangolins, a small armored insectivorous mammal native and once common throughout most of the hornet’s range, but in recent decades hunted to endangerment, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, because of the purported value of pangolin scales in traditional Chinese medicine.
Be all that as it may, the U.S., especially New York City, is in the panic-stricken midst of a COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic which has now killed more Americans––nearly 78,000 and counting––than any other disease outbreak since the flu pandemic of 1968.
Fear of influenza did not cancel the open-air Woodstock rock-and-roll concert, the “Summer of Love” gathering of hippie “flower children” in San Francisco, or the 1968 baseball season, and did not quell riots in Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago, among other U.S. cities.
However, the post-World War II “Baby Boom” generation then just coming of age are now from 56 to 75 years old. Aging Boomers are acutely aware, for the most part, that the majority of the U.S. fatalities due to COVID-19 have been among people in their own age range and older.
Of those deaths, 19,500-plus have come in New York City.
Trump blames China
Pandering to anti-Chinese sentiment among his political base, and eager to deflect blame for failing to respond promptly to respond to warnings from China, where COVID-19 originated, and from the World Health Organization, an arm of the New York City-based United Nations, U.S. President Donald Trump on April 15, 2020 froze funding to the World Health Organization.
This elevated consternation in New York City, and escalated China-bashing around the U.S..
On May 1, 2020, Trump cancelled National Institutes of Health funding for the also-New York City-based Eco Health Alliance, which in turn partially funded the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Chinese laboratory that first identified COVID-19.
The Trump action further incited New York City residents and stoked conspiracy theories, voiced by Trump himself, among others, which allege––without a scrap of actual evidence––that COVID-19 somehow was concocted in a Chinese laboratory or escaped from a Chinese laboratory accidentally.
New York Times feeds the panic
During the next few days Trump intimated through Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and top economic adviser Larry Kudlow that China would somehow be “held accountable” for COVID-19, even though China took action to try to prevent the spread of the pandemic worldwide beginning on December 30, 2019, weeks before Trump so much as acknowledged that COVID-19 exists and is a public health threat.
All of that proved to be part of the set-up for public response to a May 3, 2020 report entitled “Murder Hornets’ in the U.S.: The Rush to Stop the Asian Giant Hornet,” by New York Times Seattle bureau chief Mike Baker.
Baker indirectly referenced a broadcast by TV Asahi in Japan, which on September 28, 2008 described the relatively familiar “great sparrow bee” as satsujin suzumebachi, literally translated as “murder hornet.”
The term “murder hornet” quickly caught on among New York Times readers, was amplified within hours by other New York City media, and then––as anything becoming fashionable in New York City tends to do––exploded into popularity nationwide, even jumping into European prominence via British online tabloids.
Baker opened by describing how beekeeper Ted McFall, of Custer, Washington, a small town between Bellingham and Blaine, Washington, in November 2019 discovered a “pile of dead members of the colony in front of a hive and more carnage inside — thousands and thousands of bees with their heads torn from their bodies and no sign of a culprit.”
Acknowledged Baker, “McFall still is not certain that Asian giant hornets were responsible for the plunder of his hive.”
“Queens can grow to two inches long”
However, Baker wrote, “With queens that can grow to two inches long, Asian giant hornets can use mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins to wipe out a honeybee hive in a matter of hours, decapitating the bees and flying away with the thoraxes to feed their young.”
Photographs from McFall’s hive appeared to make the point.
“In November 2019, a single [Asian giant] hornet was seen in White Rock, British Columbia, perhaps 10 miles away from the discoveries in Washington State — likely too far for the hornets to be part of the same colony,” Baker continued. “Even earlier, there had been a hive discovered on Vancouver Island, across a strait that probably was too wide for a hornet to have crossed from the mainland.”
That colony was fumigated out of existence with carbon dioxide by Conrad Bérubé, “a beekeeper and entomologist in the town of Nanaimo,” Baker recounted, who was “stung at least seven times” through his protective clothing.
“It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh,” Bérubé told Baker.
No, Asian giant hornets do not kill 50 people a year in Japan
Baker went on to quote Jun-ichi Takahashi, “a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan,” who said that “aggressive group attacks [by Asian giant hornets] can expose victims to doses of toxic venom equivalent to that of a venomous snake; a series of stings can be fatal.”
“In Japan, the hornets kill up to 50 people a year,” Baker misreported.
Advises Wikipedia, citing Japanese sources, “Since 2001, the yearly human death toll caused by stings of bees, wasps and hornets in Japan has been ranging between 12 and 26. Since this number also includes deaths caused by wasps, bees and other hornet species, the number of deaths caused by Asian giant hornets is likely significantly lower.
“Advice in China,” Wikipedia adds, “is that people stung more than 10 times need medical help, and need emergency treatment for more than 30 stings. The stings can cause kidney failure.”
Climate change increases risk
China appears to have had more experience with deadly Asian giant hornet attacks than anywhere else, but there too, the numbers of incidents are inflated by data that fails to distinguish attacks by one species of venomous insect from all others.
“In northwest China’s Shaanxi province,” reported Tania Branigan for The Guardian on October 4, 2013, “over the past three months alone, hornets have killed 41 people and injured a further 1,675. Ankang, a municipality in the province’s south, appears to be the center of the attacks. While hornets infest its mountainous rural areas every year––36 residents were stung to death between 2002 and 2005––local people and municipal officials say this year it is tantamount to an epidemic, the worst they have ever seen.”
Added Branigan, linking the attack to effects of climate change that allow more hornets to survive harsh winters and to more human activity in the mountains surrounding Ankang, “At least some of the deaths were caused by Vespa mandarinia, experts say. The species does not typically attack unless it feels its nest is threatened.
All hornets are not created equal
“The region has also been overrun by the Asian hornet, Vespa velutina, a slightly smaller species which can be equally dangerous,” Branigan qualified. “Hundreds, even thousands, inhabit each nest, which typically hangs from a high place,” unlike the underground nests of the Asian giant hornet.
“Two other cities in Shaanxi––Hanzhong and Shangluo––have also been besieged by hornets,” Branigan mentioned, “though the death tolls have been markedly lower.”
Branigan did not specify which hornet species was implicated in the Hanzhong and Shangluo incidents. Branigan also referenced a fatal hornet attack “in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region,” again without specifying the species involved.
Responded ProMED moderator Tam Garland, “Asian giant hornets are able to sting their victims repeatedly, each time injecting a complex venom,” which “contains eight different chemicals, each with a specific purpose. These range from [causing] tissue degeneration and breathing difficulties, to making the sting more painful and even attracting other hornets to the victim.”
Updated Garland on May 7, 2020, “This hornet has killed people in several countries and will likely kill in the U.S.A. if established here.”
How & why Asian giant hornets attack beehives
But the chief targets of Asian giant hornets are “other large insects, such as bees, other hornet species, and mantises,” Garland specified in her much more extensive 2013 posting.
“Asian giant hornets often and very effectively attack honey bee hives,” Garland explained then. “A single Vespa mandarinia scout, or sometimes two or three, will cautiously approach the hive, giving off pheromones which will lead other hornets to the location.
“Asian giant hornets, which are five times the size and twenty times the weight of a honey bee, can devastate a honey bee colony in a very short time,” Garland continued. “A single hornet can kill as many as 40 honey bees per minute thanks to its large mandibles. Once a hive is emptied of all defending bees, the hornets feed on the honey and carry the larvae back to feed to their own larvae. Adult Asian giant hornets cannot digest solid protein, so they do not eat their prey, but chew them into a paste and feed them to their larvae.
“Like many other vespid wasp species,” Garland finished, “adults themselves consume a clear liquid, Vespa amino acid mixture, which is produced by their own larvae.”
Thus Asian giant hornets can become a significant threat to honey bee colonies, as well as to humans who try to exterminate the hornets.
But how great a threat? Except in very limited island habitats, no nonhuman predator is capable of driving the predator’s primary prey species to extinction, or even more than local extirpation, since the predator will starve long before the last of the prey species disappears.
China, where the Asian giant hornet thrives in the wild, leads the known universe with $249 million per year in honey exports.
Thailand, also home range for the Asian giant hornet, exports $24 million a year worth of honey, just slightly less than the U.S. at $25 million worth, even though the U.S. has 15.5 times more land mass furnishing bee habitat.
Minding their beeswax
What China & Thailand don’t have is the neonicotinoid pesticide problem afflicting bees, birds, fish, and other insects alike throughout the U.S.
The alleged threat of “invasive Asian giant hornets” whets U.S. xenophobic fear of the foreign, intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is a fear manufactured by politics.
The honey bees found across the U.S., Europe, and Asia are all the same bee species, found in different places. Honey bees in North America are as well adapted to survive and thrive despite Asian giant hornet predation as those of China, Thailand, and everywhere else Asian giant hornets occur––unless panicked beekeepers and agricultural agencies start recklessly spraying pesticides in bee habitat to try to kill the hornets.
Asian giant hornets, meanwhile, are likely to soon become side dishes to the same range of birds, insectivorous mammals, and larvae-consuming snakes as already consume native hornet species, helping honey bees to go on about minding their own beeswax.