Hornets

Comparison of three wasps: cicada killer; giant Asian hornet; and tarantula hawk.

By Jim Leser

“Murder Hornets” invade the U.S. Oh my! As if the news media needed another crisis to report on and sensationalize. There have been so many misunderstandings about this wasp resulting in unnecessary panic.

Calling these “Murder Hornets” or “Hell Hornets” is akin to calling Africanized bees, “Killer Bees.” Africanized bees are a problem because they are so aggressive and territorial that they will attack in large numbers, delivering large amounts a venom to a stung individual. But an individual Africanized bee is no more dangerous than a single European honeybee.

First, the Giant Asian Hornet is not in Colorado and has thus far been discovered only in British Columbia and Washington state. They are not invading like the latest Coronavirus has, and they have been found in only very few numbers so far.

Secondly, they do not murder humans. When is the last time you read that an insect was found by a grand jury to be culpable for first degree murder? These wasps search and hunt for large insects to feed on, not humans.

These wasps can attack honey bee colonies with the potential of killing off the hive. But it takes several wasps and several hours for this to occur. If you are a beekeeper in Washington state, you probably do have a reason to be concerned. Currently, there are efforts planned to hopefully eradicate this new pest from the U.S. before it becomes a problem.

And lastly, while these wasps can reach lengths of up to 2 inches, at least their queens can, they are not the world’s largest hornet. The Tarantula Hawk can reach 2 inches in length, so there appears to be a tie for world’s largest wasp. Cicada Killers are also quite large, reaching 1½ inches in length. Both these wasps can be found in Colorado.

The Giant Asian Hornet has a sting that is commensurate with its size. Their venom is said to be seven times more powerful than from a honey bee sting. This could be due mainly to the larger volume of venom in this large wasp versus the much smaller honeybee. And unlike honeybees they can sting multiple times. Originating in Japan, this hornet is purportedly responsible for up to 50 deaths per year. But we don’t know if these deaths were from multiple stings or whether the individuals stung had underlying health problems.

Giant Asian hornets are quite distinctive with large yellow-orange faces. They have long curved stingers that can penetrate your typical beekeeper’s suit. They can be more aggressive than Tarantula Hawks and Cicada Killers which are rather docile. In my 45 years as a Ph.D. entomologist, I have never received a report of anyone being stung by these two native wasps. That doesn’t mean you couldn’t provoke them. I certainly wouldn’t want to be stung by any of these three wasps. I understand the pain can be quite excruciating, at least for a few minutes.

Giant Asian Hornets build communal nests while Tarantula Hawks bury spiders in a burrow to feed their young and Cicada Killers bury, you guessed it, tarantula spiders in their burrows. These wasps are both solitary.

Like most insects, if they are not provoked, they will generally leave you alone. This is not the first time that headlines prompted a flurry of concerned callers to flood local government phone lines. Relax. These Giant Asian Hornets are way up in the Northwest, far from our Colorado borders. They may or may not ever make it to Colorado and survive. For us in Colorado, this is much to do about nothing.

Jim Leser retired to Cedaredge in 2007 after a career with Texas A&M University Extension in entomology. He is a member of the Cedaredge Tree Board and a Colorado Master Gardener.

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