'Murder Hornet' Task Force Set Up in Texas After Sightings of Invasive Species in Washington

A "murder hornet" task force is being led by Texas A&M AgriLife at the request of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott following sightings in Washington state.

The purpose of the task force will be to protect Texans, as well as the state's hives and agricultural industry, from the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), a species that has been dubbed the "murder hornet" and was recently spotted in the country for the first time.

Vespa mandarinia is the world's largest species of hornet, measuring up to 2 inches long. The insect contains a powerful sting that was described as "like someone has shoved a red-hot poker into your arm and does not remove it for close to six hours" by one video blogger who regularly submits himself to insect bites and stings, on his YouTube channel Brave Wilderness.

According to the university, the task force will bring together expertise in agriculture, entomology and homeland security to educate the public, monitor possible ports of entry and assist with mitigation efforts to protect the state's honeybees. It will also draw up identification plans "if necessary."

"Although this pest has not been spotted in Texas, the hornet poses a threat to both agriculture and public health," Patrick J. Stover, vice chancellor of Texas A&M AgriLife, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and director of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, said in a statement.

Asian giant hornets make its nest on a tree trunk.
Stock image: Asian giant hornets make its nest on a tree trunk. A “murder hornet” task force is being led by Texas A&M AgriLife at the request of Texas Governor Greg Abott. kororokerokero/iStock

As of yet, the only confirmed sightings in the U.S. have been in Blaine, Washington, approximately 1,800 miles from El Paso. The species has also been identified in British Columbia, Canada.

But while sightings have been rare, the next few months could be important in containing the spread of the species before mating season begins in the fall. In Texas, state officials have stated the importance of checking customs to make sure it does not enter the state via cargo, which is how authorities suspect Vespa mandarinia arrived in North America in the first place.

"While widespread surveillance for the hornets in Texas is premature, we do need strategies to prevent the hornets' arriving here in cargo," said Ragsdale. "Right now, what we need to know is whether the Asian giant hornets have successfully overwintered in British Columbia or in Washington state."

Greg Pompelli, director of the Center for Cross-Border Threat Screening and Supply Chain Defense, said Customs and Border Protection staff are being trained to detect the Asian giant hornet.

"We are also increasing surveillance of incoming containers and evaluating opportunities for specialized detection, such as possibly using scent-trained dogs to find these hornets hidden in cargo or luggage," he said.

While the species is known to deliver a painful sting and has been linked to 30 to 50 deaths in Japan each year, predominantly from allergic reactions, the prevailing risk is the threat the hornet poses to honeybees.

According to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, it only takes 15 to 30 hornets to decimate a hive containing 30,000 to 50,000, and they can complete the job in just a few hours. The process begins with a "slaughter phase," where the hornets kill the bees using decapitation methods. The hornets then occupy the hive and take the developing larvae to feed their own young.

Bees in Japan have developed methods to defend the hive against Asian giant hornets but experts have warned that America's bees could be an easy target for the predators.

Brent Sinclair, biology professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, observed the Asian giant hornets during a research trip in southeast China. He described them as "like little helicopters."

"If they can get into a honeybee hive—and they will—they'll systematically eat their way through all the brood of a hive within a few days," he said in a statement. "They are really bad news for beekeepers."