Asian giant hornet (copy)

An Asian giant hornet.

Bees pollinate berries in northwest Washington before Asian giant hornet colonies mature in the summer, a sequence that may shield commercial beekeepers and farmers from being stung by the invasive wasp.

Western Washington’s largest beekeeper, Eric Thompson, pollinates raspberries and blueberries in the spring in northern Whatcom County, the only area in the U.S. where Asian giant hornets have been seen.

Thompson said March 18 that people he hasn’t heard from in decades call up and ask if he’s concerned. By the time the hornets come out, though, his bees are off to other jobs, spread out as far away as Montana.

“The news media in this country has run wild with the murder hornet thing,” he said. “I haven’t worried about it.

“I don’t see how they can be detrimental to agriculture at this point.”

Asian giant hornets have a fearsome reputation for decapitating honeybees. Agriculture officials in Washington and British Columbia are out to search and destroy nests before the hornets slaughter pollinators.

A bigger threat may be to the ecosystem if the hornets attack wild bees, wasps or other insects. Asian giant hornets are a public hazard, too, inflicting sometimes lethal stings.

Washington State University bee expert Tim Lawrence, pictured on his college webpage happily covered in live bees, said public safety concerns are real, but it’s too early to say hornets menace agriculture.

“Let’s not go overboard. It’s already hyped up more than it needs to be,” Lawrence said. “To say it will have a negative effect on agriculture is premature.

“The hobbyists who don’t move their hives are probably at biggest risk,” he said. “Most of the commercial guys have already completed their pollination.”

Asian honeybees have co-evolved with giant hornets and developed defenses, such as swarming and heating to death lone hornets. More recently, researchers have observed bees smearing hives with animal feces to repel hornets. North American honeybees, presumably, would be hapless victims.

Beekeepers already have troubles. Thompson said he’s more worried about parasitic varroa mites. Lawrence said mice and shrew decapitate honeybees, too.

“Don’t assume that if you find bees without heads that it was Asian giant hornets,” Lawrence said.

Researchers are studying the potential for Asian giant hornets to spread out from northern Whatcom County. So far, the thinking is that Eastern Washington winters are too cold for hibernating queens.

“There’s little chance they’ll ever get established here,” said Tim Hiatt, a commercial beekeeper in the Columbia Basin.

If Asian giant hornets do spread in the more temperate Western Washington, stationery hives maintained by hobbyists will be “sitting ducks,” he said.

The hobbyist beekeepers help keep the westside landscape green, Hiatt said.

“Washington has a lot of hobbyist beekeepers, and I’m really glad WSDA is involved in shutting down the threat,” he said. “Keeping invasive species from spreading is something they’re darn good at.”

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