USDA and WSDA Collaborate With Citizen Scientists to Eradicate Asian Giant Hornets

A+Cox%E2%80%99s+Orange+Pippin%2C+a+local+variety+of+an+apple+tree%2C+murder+hornets+enjoy+resting+on+apple+trees+such+as+these

A Cox’s Orange Pippin, a local variety of an apple tree, murder hornets enjoy resting on apple trees such as these

Cole Wilson, Journalist

     The U.S. and Washington State Departments of Agriculture are working hard with citizen scientists to prevent the spread of Asian Giant Hornets into Washington. These pests (also called Vespa mandarinia or murder hornets) are an invasive species coming over the border from Canada into the northwest corner of Whatcom County. This is the first case of murder hornets in the United States, though there have been many similar invasions from other invasive species. For example, the New Zealand Mud Snail, in Capitol Lake. In addition to the government departments working hard, the public and scientific response to this incursion of hornets has also been an extremely important part of the eradication operation currently underway.

     These hornets will attack all local insects, especially honey bees. According to Karla Salp, public Engagement Specialist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), “they can kill [honeybee] hives in a matter of hours.” The murder hornets will also directly attack fruit, making it inedible. If unchecked, this behavior will pose an enormous risk to Washington’s agricultural production in the coming years. As stated by Tim St. Germain, the Washington State Plant Health Director in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s APHIS branch,  “commercial beekeepers in California who provide pollination services to the almond growers have concerns about the risk to their hives… there are more than 2 million beehives in California almond orchards during the pollination season.” According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service branch of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), California almond orchards are valued at over five billion dollars. This is just an example of the huge economic impact if the hornets spread. In addition to the potential agricultural effects, there is a human side to the threat. Many people have expressed concerns over the hornets because of their two-inch size and their extremely powerful sting, which has occasionally proved deadly. However, “Asian giant hornets do not attack people unless they feel threatened.” says St. Germain. All in all, this is not as high an area of concern as the agricultural and economic impact is. While it certainly is an important issue, Washington isn’t yet at the point where it’s a crisis yet. “I can’t speak for all the beekeepers, but I think most of the beekeepers are not worried about the hornets at this point in time. It’s mostly monitoring to see what’s going on,” says Dan Doty, a local beekeeper in Olympia Washington.

     The WSDA was alerted to the hornets’ presence in late 2019, and they have been working hard ever since to handle the invasive pests. “Our first goal is to determine the extent of their population,” says Salp, “and we’ve mostly done that… our long term goal is to eradicate them.” They are currently relying on community reports to track down the hornets. The WSDA website has detailed directions on how to set up hornet traps, and on how to report sightings. Doty describes the monitoring network: “right now, they’re trying to establish what they call a citizen science network… of people who will voluntarily set up these traps around the state.” The citizen scientist response has been enormously influential in finding wasps. Currently, there are more than 2,400 citizen scientist traps set up. If the Department can find a live hornet, they can use a GPS device to track it back to its nest, where they can hopefully eradicate them. However, they have attempted to do this with two different hornets, both unsuccessfully. 

     However, on October 23rd, the Department’s entomologists succeeded in locating a live nest near Blaine, Washington. According to an official press release, “The entomologists were able to attach radio trackers to three hornets, the second of which lead them to the discovery of the nest, found about 4 p.m. on Oct. 22.”  Successful destruction of the nest happened on Saturday, October 24th. While this is a huge leap in the process of eradication, the WSDA still believes that there is one more nest somewhere in the vicinity of Whatcom county. The WSDA also works with the USDA closely in this process. “We have complementary goals. We are like the boots on the ground and they look at policy and provide quite a bit of funding and research,” says Salp. The funding and research that the USDA is providing will help the WSDA in their efforts to find and eradicate the murder hornets. “[the] USDA Agricultural Research Service completed genome sequencing of the Asian Giant Hornet this year… and this will really help us determine if there was more than one introduction of the Asian Giant Hornet into North America and possibly where they come from,” says St. Germain. In addition to this, the USDA is also providing technical assistance. The WSDA successfully found the first nest “using a different technology that we are fortunate to have loaned to us from the USDA from their OTIS laboratory,” said WSDA entomologist Sven Spichiger in a virtual press conference held on October 23rd.

     Going forward there are several steps that need to be taken. As Salp says, “The ideal situation is finding a great lure that’s only for Asian Giant Hornets, and doesn’t attract any other types of insects.” A lure like this would be greatly helpful because the WSDA can’t spray for the invasive pests without also killing other hornets. Aside from a lure, there is the matter of finding nests. Once a live hornet is found, tracking it to its nest is extremely important. After a nest has been found, it must be eradicated (destroyed). Given that one nest has already been found, this will likely decrease the chances of the hornets spreading significantly. If someone thinks they have seen an Asian giant hornet, “they should report it as soon as possible… the more details the better that can be uploaded into that report.” says St. Germain. “As a high school, middle school, grade school student the more that you know about invasive pests and invasive species … [ and especially the] Asian giant hornet the better.” If the hornets do end up spreading, people will deal with it in stride. As Doty says, “everyone is always coming up with ways to be better beekeepers, it’s a lot of art and a lot of science combined… If those hornets did take over, people would be coming up with innovative ways to keep them from taking over their hives.” You can report sightings and learn more about the Asian Giant Hornets at agr.wa.gov/hornets.