The U.S. has 3,141 counties, but just one, Whatcom County in northern Washington state, has documented sightings of the Asian giant hornet, dubbed “murder hornet.” Even there, only three specimens have been confirmed.
But news reports about the hornets that went viral early May have sparked nationwide panic. For over a month, entomologists coast to coast have been swamped with questions and false sightings, and they say the frenzy has prompted a backlash: people are indiscriminately killing beneficial bumble bees, wasps, hornets and native species.
“I think the issue was blown way out of proportion with over-the-top headlines and even the term ‘murder hornets.’ It’s caused people to react in a very uninformed way,” said Scott Black, executive director of the Xerxes Society, a Portland-based invertebrate conservation group.
Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture who is driving the hornet research, said his team has received thousands of calls — from people with “ideas, demands, reports, questions” — in a matter of weeks.
The callers are not just from Washington state, said Looney. People are calling from Alabama, Maine, even overseas.
Entomologists across the country have received a similar avalanche of public inquiry.
Matthew Bertone, director of the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic at North Carolina State University, told the Capital Press he has received 173 emails about “murder hornets” since May. Many of the emails contain images of squished insects people mistook as Asian giant hornets, including European hornets and southern yellow jackets.
In the West, researchers say people are killing native species.
“People keep submitting pictures asking me if they’ve killed an Asian giant hornet. But I’m like, no, it’s a squished bumble bee,” said Karla Salp, spokeswoman for WSDA.
Salp said bumble bees are better pollinators than honey bees, in particular for crops such as blueberries, eggplants and peppers.
Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture, said Asian giant hornets can be distinguished from bumble bees in a few ways: they are significantly larger, have giant orange heads and don’t appear fuzzy.
“Bumble bees look fuzzy. They look like you could cuddle them, though I don’t recommend it. These hornets don’t give off that sense at all,” said Buckley.
Buckley said bumble bee queens, which fly in spring, are larger and likelier to be mistaken for hornets. Killing a worker bee is not a big deal, said Buckley, but killing a queen is essentially killing an entire colony.
Other insects are also at risk of being misidentified. Entomologists say native wasps like the cicada killer and great gold digger wasps, along with wasp-like creatures such as the non-stinging pigeon horntail and the elm sawfly, are also look-alike candidates.
Black of the Xerxes Society said many people have negative connotations of wasps, but many varieties are mild-mannered and important for pest control in crops and gardens.
“People hear the word ‘wasp’ and only think of yellow jackets and their picnics,” said Black.
Buckley said Asian giant hornets are “beefier” than slender wasps and have much larger heads.
Entomologists are more concerned about the use of insecticides than individual bug-swatting.
Google Trends, a tool that analyzes top search queries, seems to confirm entomologists’ fears. It revealed that in the last month, Google searches for terms like “hornet traps,” “hornet spray,” “how to kill hornets” and “insecticide” have swelled 20 to 30 times their usual levels for this time of year. These trends catapulted in popularity May 3, the day after the New York Times published a story coining the term “murder hornets.”
Looney of WSDA said although he’s concerned about indiscriminate insect-killing, he does see some silver lining.
Many people have sent in photographs of insects, including horntails and wood wasps, which researchers previously knew little about, helping researchers fill knowledge gaps.
Another bright spot is that people have been more engaged in “citizen science,” Looney said. Every confirmed specimen so far has been found by the public, he said.
Researchers say they are hopeful that when panic subsides, people will continue to take an interest in the natural world.
In the meantime, Looney’s team continues to set thousands of traps to prevent Asian giant hornets from establishing in the U.S.
“If it establishes, it’s going to cost beekeepers money, might be an ecological pest and will likely sting people,” said Looney. “But it’s not going to be an apocalyptic insect. People can rest easy.”