How 'Murder Hornets' Could Disrupt the Entire World's Food Supply Chain

The rush is on to stop the invasion of the Asian giant hornet that has set social media abuzz amid fears that the insect, sometimes known as the "murder hornet," could decimate the delicate honeybee population, endangering the food chain, according to some scientists.

"We know the Asian giant hornet is a specialized predator of honeybees; and while the Japanese honeybee, which is a different species of the honeybee, has good behavioral defenses against the hornet, the European honeybee has no defense against this hornet," David Ragsdale, chief scientific officer, and associate director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, and professor in the Department of Entomology, told Newsweek.

The Asian giant hornet, the largest of its kind, is an invasive species that is more common in Thailand, China and Japan that kills about 50 people per year, but can inflict major damage to a honeybee colony.

Murder Hornet
Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologist Chris Looney displays a dead Asian giant hornet on May 7 in Blaine, Washington. The new Asian hornets have been found in Washington state. Some experts warn that the so-called murder hornet could wreak havoc on the honeybee population in the U.S. ELAINE THOMPSON/Getty

Ragsdale said a small army of about 15 to 30 of the hornets could easily wipe out a colony of 50,000 honeybees within a matter of hours.

The Asian giant hornet was discovered in the northwest U.S. and southwestern Canada last year, infiltrates honeybee colonies, and attacks the bees by ripping their heads off and feeding the carcasses to its young.

Ted McFall, a Washington beekeeper, has seen firsthand, the damage these hornets can do to a honeybee colony.

During a routine check of his colonies in Custer, Washington, last November, McFall discovered a pile of headless honeybee carcasses in the hive and on the ground, according to The New York Times.

Ragsdale said there have been four sightings of the murder hornet, in Washington and in a nest that was discovered and destroyed in British Columbia, in September 2019.

Entomologists with the Washington Department of Agriculture set traps this week in Blaine, Washington, and are formulating plans to eradicate the murder hornets in the region.

Trapping Murder Hornets
Chris Looney replaces a trap used to search for the Asian giant hornet during the second of four collections in the area on May 7 in Blaine, Washington; none of the invasive hornet species was found. The Asian giant hornets that have been found in Washington state are natural predators to honeybees. ELAINE THOMPSON/Getty

While most people take honeybees for granted, they play a crucial role in the ecosystem.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, many of the foods that find their way to America's dinner table come as a result of bee pollination.

The USDA estimates that bees pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the United States, and one out of every four bites of food people take is possible because of bee pollination.

But that could all change if the murder hornet population is left unchecked.

"The only defense against this is for the beekeeper to recognize the damage and move the remaining hives to another apiary several miles away," Ragsdale said. "Generally, an attack by Asian giant hornet means there is a nest within 0.5 and 1.5 miles."

However, Ragsdale adds that the nests of these hornets are difficult to find because they build their nests underground, often in an abandoned animal burrow.

"The goal is to locate nests before fall, so they can be destroyed prior to producing reproductive," Ragsdale said. "This is a monumental task, but with enough people tending traps, watching their beehives and just in general on the lookout for an unusually large hornet, about the size of a human thumb, this is possible. And doing so can save the beekeeping industry from yet another threat they need to manage."