You’ve heard the names: kudzu, nutria, zebra mussels, cheatgrass, yellow star thistle, wild pigs, spotted wing drosophila. ... These plants, animals and insects are well known to many in agriculture, and so is the damage they can do to crops and the environment.
All told, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are more than 4,300 invasive species in the U.S.
Add one more to the list, the Asian giant hornet. These newly arrived insects have been found in British Columbia and, most recently, in northwestern Washington state. It is supposed that they hitchhiked to Canada from Asia on ships.
At about 1.5 inches long, they are impressive to see and can kill humans by stinging them. But what they can do to a honeybee hive is devastating, for the bees and for farmers and orchardists who depend on the bees to pollinate their crops, tree fruits and tree nuts.
The hornets — also known as commander wasps, yak-killer hornets and tiger head bees — enter a beehive and go into “slaughter phase.”
“No one knows what triggers it ... decapitating bee after bee and eating their bodies,” said Washington State Department of Agriculture public engagement specialist Karla Salp.
Twenty hornets can kill an entire hive in as little as one hour, she told Capital Press reporter Sierra Dawn McClain.
In parts of Europe, a similar species of hornet killed off 30% of the beehives, drastically reducing crop and honey production.
In the U.S., the stakes are huge.
From the 1.33 million acres of almond trees in California to the 175,000 acres of apple trees in Washington state, honeybees are the linchpin. Each year, 75% of all managed beehives are trucked to California to pollinate almonds.
Without adequate bee pollination the crops will be diminished, costing growers money and reducing the supply available to consumers.
While California has inspection stations for pests, it is possible one or several could stow away in a truckload of hives bound for almond country. Such an occurrence could spell disaster for beekeepers and almond growers.
While special screens can be used to keep the hornets out of hives, beekeepers say they are expensive. They recommend reducing the size of the holes honeybees use to enter hives.
But stopping the spread of the hornets will take a joint effort, experts say.
“This is a good citizen-scientist moment,” said Laura Lavine, chair of Washington State University’s entomology department. “Everyone can pitch in.”
If you see an Asian giant hornet, report it via email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Send a photo if possible.
Let’s hope this latest threat can be stopped before it causes irreversible damage.