Vancouver Sun


There’s lots of hype around ‘murder’ hornets, but the Agricultur­e Ministry is on the case

- VAUGHN PALMER Victoria­er

British Columbians cannot say they were given no warning about the latest outbreak.

“Three Asian giant hornets found in Nanaimo,” proclaimed the news release from the provincial Ministry of Agricultur­e last Sept. 11.

It confirmed the arrival on these shores of a threat that many of us had never suspected: a singularly aggressive five-centimetre-long hornet, capable of flying 32 kilometres an hour and with a sting like “red-hot thumb tacks going into your flesh.”

The news also raised the prospect of more to come. These were, after all, hive insects given to travelling in swarms, not in trios. Sure enough, a week later, the ministry was able to report that a nest had been located and destroyed.

No small feat, by the way. The Asian giant nests in numbers of up to 1,000 in holes in the ground.

“If a nest is encountere­d, don’t disturb it and leave the area,” advised the ministry, not acknowledg­ing that by the time one stumbles across the hole, it might be too late to avoid disturbing the hornets within.

Troubled by those and other possibilit­ies, I wrote a viewingwit­h-alarm column. “Plucky columnist vows to hide indoors,” headlined the newspaper, not taking my concern very seriously.

There matters stood until earlier this month when the New York Times headlined that some of the hornets had emerged from their winter hibernatio­n and surfaced (literally) in Blaine, Wash.

The Times also reported two nicknames: “Giant sparrow hornets,” which is what the Japanese call them, somewhat exaggerati­ng the seven-centimetre wing span; and, “murder hornets,” not a name one is likely to forget. The paper’s Tokyo correspond­ent Ben Dooley followed with some no less memorable details in a piece headlined: “In Japan, the Murder Hornet is Both a Lethal Threat and a Tasty Treat.”

Yes, Asian giants are served steamed on rice, deep-fried on skewers (“stingers and all”), and drowned in liquor where their venom provides quite a buzz (sorry).

The murder hornet moniker supposedly relates to their devastatin­g way with a hive of honeybees.

“They have massive heads with these giant mandibles and they just chop in half,” Gard Otis, an adjunct professor of entomology at the University of Guelph, told The Canadian Press.

“They just cut their heads off and you end up with a slaughter on the ground in front of the hive. They kill all the adult bees and end up with honey, larvae, pupae. It’s like they just stocked up the refrigerat­or for the next pandemic.”

Thanks professor. That image will stick with me for a while, too.

Some of the people coming into contact with the Asian giants have disturbing experience­s, too.

“An Asian giant hornet can sting you multiple times and deliver larger doses of venom just because of the size of them,” says Sven-Erik Spichiger, managing entomologi­st at the Washington State Department of Agricultur­e.

“The venom itself is fairly toxic and creates localized necrosis around the wound so you’ll see melting flesh around the wound.

“Most people can survive one or two stings,” he continued. (The “most” was a reassuring touch.)

“But if you sustain multiple stings, the necrosis and the venom will actually start getting into your bloodstrea­m and will start working on your organs. And multiple stings could literally be fatal.”

Still, the somewhat hyperbolic coverage brought protests as well. They are not coming to get you, insisted Chris Looney, entomologi­st with the Washington department of agricultur­e. “They are not murder hornets ... they are just hornets.”

Not coming to get you? In Japan, the Asian giants kill as many as 50 people a year.

That detail had me channellin­g Gen. Buck Turgidson, the character played by George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelov­e: “I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed, I’m talking 50 casualties. Tops! Depending on the breaks.”

Closer to home than even Blaine, Asian giants have lately turned up in White Rock and Langley. In the latter community, a woman spotted one in her garden and stomped on it.

Brave move on her part. When an Asian giant is attacked, it emits a pheromone that summons others of the species “to come and finish you off,” as one internet posting put it.

Wondering how the province is dealing with the revived threat, I dialed in Thursday to a media conference with Agricultur­e Minister Lana Popham.

I refrained from asking whether she’d be adding deep-fried hornets to her ministry’s successful Buy B.C. agricultur­e program.

She began by reminding me that before the pandemic struck, she’d invited me to drop by her office, where she has one of the giant you-know-whats on display.

As a pet? No, encased in plastic. But I’ve seen enough horror movies to imagine the scene. “Minister, it seems as if this plastic is splitting open ... run for your lives.”

Joking aside, she assured me the ministry is on the case.

“They are a threat to our honeybee hives. They’re coming out of their winter sleep and they’re emerging. We’re trying to track them and asking people to report them when they see them.”

The best way to do that is to call her ministry or the B.C. Invasive Species Council.

Meanwhile, rest assured, no one in B.C. is more committed to isolating at home than yours truly. Never mind waiting for the word from Dr. Bonnie Henry. I want an all-clear from the minister of agricultur­e herself.

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