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What’s In A Name? CSU Entomologist Says 'Murder Hornet' Title Is All Buzz, No Sting

Yasunori Koide
CC BY-SA 4.0
The Asian giant hornet has earned the nickname "murder hornet," but entomologists says that name isn't deserved.

As if there wasn't enough to worry about with the COVID-19 pandemic, a new twist to 2020 was recently announced. This time it's the Vespa mandarinia - better known as the Asian giant hornet. The world's largest hornet, it can reach up to two inches long, has a wingspan up to three inches wide and a quarter-inch stinger to inject its venom. 

News of the insect being recently discovered in North Americahas spurred startling headlines about the so-called "murder hornets." The nickname comes due in part to its ability to decimate an entire colony of honeybees by decapitating them.

But Colorado State University entomology professor and extension specialist Whitney Cranshaw says all the buzz is unnecessary. Cranshaw, who is also chairman of the Entomological Society of America's committee on common insect names, recently wrote a response about the media reaction and the colorful name to his listserv PestTalk.

"The name 'murder wasp' is just silly and needlessly inflammatory. It is a predator; it eats other insects. Like all mantids, most all lady beetles and lacewings, all spiders … We have three wasp families (Sphecidae, Crabronidae, Pompilidae) that are very well represented in most any yard/garden in the state, which are generally referred to by the far more benign term 'hunting wasps.' These insects paralyze their prey, haul the paralyzed insect to some nest, lay an egg on it and have a larval stage that slowly consumes the live - but paralyzed - insect. Should we call these the 'kidnap and slowly butcher' wasps?"

In an interview with KUNC, Cranshaw said the post stemmed from frustration over seeing even highly-regarded media feeding the "murder hornet" frenzy.

"I expect something like that from The Enquirer, but not the New York Times," he said.

Credit Courtesy Colorado State University
Courtesy Colorado State University
Whitney Cranshaw

To be an acceptable common name, Cranshaw says it has to be based on some unique features.

"All hornets murder stuff," he said. "I mean, what we call a very common insect around here, which is technically a black yellowjacket, the bald-faced hornet - it murders insects all day." 

While the finding of the insect in a small area of Western Washington and British Columbia is news - it's typically only found in Asia - Cranshaw said the fear that it's spreading is unnecessary.

"At this point in time, it's very premature to think that this is going to be a threat," he said.

The Asian giant hornet's method of attack might be part of why people are latching onto this story. After catching its prey, the hornet decapitates it, chewing portions of the thorax into a ball, and then flying back to the nest. One hornet can kill approximately 40 bees in an hour. During a "slaughter and occupy" event, a swarm can wipe out an entire bee colony in a matter of hours.

But while the hornet can do great damage to honeybees, Cranshaw says it prefers to go after social bees and wasps.

"It is far more likely to be an insect that would attack all those little paper wasps that are making those nests on the side of your house or the yellowjackets that are in the ground making a nest there, that then run around on your hamburger and drink Coca Cola out of your can at the end of summer," he said. "That's what they're going to murder more than honeybees."

Besides, the honeybee has far bigger things to worry about as far as predators go.

"In terms of a threat to honeybees, I mean, we have way more important things that damage honeybees now that recently came into the country than the Asian giant hornet will ever be," Cranshaw said. "It's back of the line after things like Varroa destructor mites and Nosema ceranae - the disease, and small hive beetles. It goes to the end of the line. It's another threat but not a huge one, and it's not going to be an issue here in Colorado."

"It's another threat but not a huge one, and it's not going to be an issue here in Colorado."

The Asian giant hornet is found in low-elevation, moist forest areas, Cranshaw said. Making Colorado's high-elevation, dry forests a poor choice and one where it would not thrive if it were to ever get here. And to get here, it would need some human help.

"There are geographic barriers that this thing would have to pass between Western Washington and Eastern Colorado that I can not see this passing on his own," he said. "Somebody would have to carry it, and that's a very dicey kind of thing to do."

The potential threat to humans has also made the hornet an intriguing story, with reports that in Japan, approximately 50 people died from Asian giant hornet stings last year. But according to the CDC, an average of 62 people die from wasp, hornet and bee stings in the U.S. each year. In Colorado, about 95 percent of all stings are from the western yellowjacket, Cranshaw said.

"The Asian giant hornet's sting is not particularly toxic," he said. "It just has a big stinger."

And as far as overall size goes, Colorado insects hold their own, Cranshaw said.

Credit Cotinis / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
The cicada killer wasp — native to parts of Colorado — is in the same weight class as the Asian giant hornet, says Cranshaw.

"If you go down to Southeast Colorado, check out the blooming flowers at the end of August and early September, and you'll see these huge, blue-black-orange wingtarantula hawks. They're as big as this - some of them are. And then if you're in an area where the cicada killers occur … I mean they look like a giant, mutant yellowjacket from hell."

But the catchy headlines and the fact that people are looking for anything not COVID-19 related to read about right now, makes the Asian giant hornet far more interesting, Cranshaw said.

"Well, there, there are aspects about this insect that certainly make it a good story," he said. "It's a big wasp and it's got a big stinger and sometimes it will attack honeybee hives …  and it can do damage to that hive. So those kinds of aspects of it certainly make it an interesting insect. But I think the concern might be because there's no other stories out in the news right now other than stuff about COVID, so it's getting way more legs than maybe it would, normally."

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.