Scientists' Tricky Hunt for Colossal 'Murder' Hornet Nest Found Two Queens

Scientists affixed a radio to a 'murder' hornet and followed it back to a colossal nest.
Brad Bergan

Since the first successful elimination of an Asian giant hornets' nest made headlines last week, scientists have shared their efforts — specifically, the techniques and technology behind their strategy — in hopes of enhancing the wider community crackdown on the looming threat of this invasive menace to polite society, according to a recent blog post on the USDA's official website.


USDA's trick to infiltrate nests of colossal 'murder' hornets

Technically called the Vespa mandarinia but colloquially known as the "murder" hornet, the giant Asian hornet is the biggest kind in the world — with the lion's share of its population in Asia and Russia, Science Alert reports.

Not a single "murder" hornet was seen in North America until recently, when sightings in British Columbia and Washington State popped up, revealing immigration of the infamous insect at play.

Since then, authorities have worked tirelessly to track down and destroy the giant hornet before it obtains a sustainable foothold in the continent.

The hornet — and its freakishly large stinger — pose a danger to humans, death from contact is generally rare. Obviously, the nickname "murder" hornet sounds ominous, but in fact, the term refers to the insect's disposition to attack and eliminate honeybee hives — decapitating insects amid a vicious "slaughter phase."

Entomologists affixed radio tag to captured hornet

Some Entomologists claim fear about the dangers of the Asian giant hornet are exaggerated, but agricultural authorities throughout the U.S. have continued to struggle for months to find and destroy nests before the murder hornet spreads throughout the country.

Last week, scientists found and removed a gigantic murder hornet nest in the town of Blaine, Washington, thanks to continued efforts to locate the nest after repeated sightings of the colossal hornet. But even when people see isolated hornets, finding their nests is no easy task — since they're usually built far out of sight in highly-forested areas, buried in trees or underground cavities, reports Science Alert.

To locate the hidden nest, entomologists from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) executed a plan to capture a live hornet, attach a traceable radio tag to its body, and then release it into the wild — where it eventually returned to its nest.

Entomologists found hornets entering, exiting dead tree

To execute the plan, WSDA researchers worked in collaboration with USDA colleagues who had already succeeded in using similar radio tags to study the movements of spotted lanternflies.

After failing — several times — because of tag saw difficulties where the tracker simply fell off the hornet, the bug-hunters achieved their goal in late October.

The radio tag eventually led the scientists to a dead tree, where the WSDA managing entomologist Sven-Erik Spichiger witnessed hornets entering and leaving the tree through a crevice several feet high on the tree trunk.

Murder Hornet Tree Nest
The scientists noticed murder hornets entering and exiting a crevice in a dead tree. Source: USDA

Scientists found two queens, worker hornets, larvae

The team then vacuumed 85 hornets out of the nest — catching another 13 with a net.

"I'm pretty confident as long as we can get live hornets, we can follow them back, and that really gives us a great tool in an overall eradication program," said Spichiger in the USDA blog post.

However, this was not the end. Days after the nest was removed, the team cut into the portion of the tree containing the colossal nest, and inside it, they found two queens in addition to other worker hornets, larvae, and the white-capped cells of still-growing adults.

Hunt for murder hornets could take years

This was a major win for entomologists, but the team emphasized the need for continued caution — since the fight to contain the giant Asian hornets' spread could last years. We don't know how many nests await discovery, or how and when the infamous insects will spread to other areas in the country.

"It's hard to say how they will behave here compared to their native range, but the fear is that there are large apiaries of bees that could be sitting ducks, while as the hornets move south to warmer weather their colonies could grow larger," said Chris Looney, a WSDA entomologist, to The Guardian.

"The object of our work is to avoid finding this out," added Looney.

While the effects of global climate change — compounded by the coming second-wave of the COVID-19 coronavirus — are enough to make a spread of murder hornets much too much, entomologists' efforts to track down and eliminate giant Asian hornet nests show how unconventional thinking and stamina in the application of new strategies are key to lessening the intensity of this state of calamity called 2020.

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