Murder Hornet or Cicada Killer? Here's What to Look for to Stay Safe

People have been mistaking a type of wasp common to much of the United States with the invasive Asian giant hornet, but there's a few easy ways to tell the two apart.

Seven Asian giant hornets have been found in the United States since 2019, all in Washington state. Nicknamed "murder hornets," the species is the largest hornet in the world, and native to much of Asia. It's unknown how the giant hornets made their way to North America.

Despite having only been found in a single county, on the far northwest border with Canada, the arrival of the so-called "murder hornets" has prompted misidentified sightings around the country. The most common cause of the mistaken identifications are wasp species known as cicada killer wasps. Sometimes also called "sand wasps," several species of cicada killer are found throughout the United States.

In Texas, where Governor Greg Abbot asked universities to assemble a task force to prepare against the possible spread of the Asian giant hornet, entomologists at Texas A&M's AgriLife Extension Service have been swamped with hundreds of possible murder hornet specimens. None of the specimens submitted by Texans have been Asian giant hornets.

Instead, according to entomologist Patrick Porter, approximately 80 percent of the misidentifications are attributable to cicada killer wasps. The misidentification has become so common that Porter and entomologist Holly Davis created a video outlining the differences between Asian giant hornet and the three most commonly found species of cicada killer: the eastern cicada killer Sphecius speciosus, Pacific cicada killer Sphecius convallis and western cicada killer Sphecius grandis.

While side-by-side comparisons make it obvious why people would mistake the cicada killer for the invasive Asian giant hornet, learning a few key distinctions can make separating the two a cinch.

While Asian giant hornets are typically larger than cicada killers, measuring up to two inches long (whereas cicada killers aren't typically larger than an inch and a half), distinguishing between them by size can be tricky. Instead, look first to the stripes on the abdomen. Whereas the Asian giant hornets have dark orange stripes, cicada killers have higher contrast yellow stripes. But even more distinct is the shape: Asian giant hornet stripes are smooth bands, while the cicada killers' are peaked. This makes the cicada killer's abdomen look more patterned than striped.

This is an Asian giant hornet, a.ka. the murder hornet. Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Another good way to separate the Asian giant hornet from the cicada killer is by looking at the insect's head. The head of a cicada killer blends relatively seamlessly into the insect's thorax, since it's narrow and the same dark brown color. By contrast, the Asian giant hornet has more of a "face," with a wide, orange head that stands out clearly from its dark thorax.

This is an eastern cicada killer, a.k.a. your friend and mine. Smithsonian Institution / public domain

In mid-August, the Washington State Department of Agriculture announced that a male Asian giant hornet was caught in a bottle trap at the end of July. (More than 1,400 traps have been set up throughout the state.) The first male of the species found in the United States, the specimen was collected near Custer, Washington, in the same county as previous sightings. Since the male drones—which don't have stingers—are more common as a colony develops, entomologists were initially surprised to have found a male specimen in July, rather than in August and September, when work outside of the hive is more common.

But while the find suggests a colony has established itself in the Pacific Northwest, it doesn't make it any more likely that the murder hornets could spread outside this narrow range—at least not this year. So unless you're living in Washington state, it's most likely that any large wasp sighting is attributable to the widespread cicada killer.

While murder hornets can be aggressive, and have a powerful sting, they will be most dangerous to existing honeybee populations. Between 15 and 30 Asian giant hornets can destroy a hive with up to 50,000 honeybees in just a few hours. American honeybees have no defenses against the invasive species.

Cicada killers don't pose a threat to either agriculture or humans. True to their name, they attack cicadas (as seen in the video above), controlling an insect population that's destructive to many tree species.

As such, entomologists recommend strongly against killing cicada killer wasps, especially since they pose almost no threat to humans. While the males of the species can act territorial—flying aggressively at humans and pets who come near the burrows the wasps dig into loose soil—they don't have stingers and have no way to hurt people. Only female cicada killers have stingers, but they're not a threat, either.

"I cannot emphasize enough that the females are not aggressive!" Davis, the Texas A&M entomologist, told Newsweek in response to emailed questions. "The very few stings I have heard about happened when people were messing with the cicada killers and placed them in a situation where they had to defend themselves. I have never, ever heard of a person getting stung, unprovoked, by a female cicada killer."

For an article outlining the cicada killer life cycle in more detail, Davis explained to Newsweek some non-lethal steps people can take if cicada killers establish burrows in areas with human traffic.

"If you don't want them returning to an area, till up the soil, plant some plants, or place pavers/mulch over the area so that the cicada killers will not continue to use it," Davis said.

Knowing the identifying markers of a cicada killer versus the Asian giant hornet may be enough to avoid misidentification, but it's also important to leave alone native species with crucial roles in local ecosystems. Once you've determined that the giant insect in your yard isn't a murder hornet, you can let it buzz about its day.