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ECO TALK

Eco Talk: What to know about the Asian giant hornet

An Asian giant hornet specimen is dead: it lies motionless on the asphalt.

An Asian giant hornet.

The Asian giant hornet made news when it was first discovered in the state of Washington almost two years ago. In December 2019, the confirmation of a single Asian giant hornet by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Blaine, Washington, was the first record of this insect species in the country. So far, they have been isolated to the Pacific Northwest, which includes British Columbia, Canada, and Washington state. In spite of the diligent efforts of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the AGH may be more widespread than previously thought.

Native to eastern Asia, the AGH is the largest hornet found worldwide, measuring 1.5 to 2 inches long. It has a distinctive large yellow-orange head with black eyes; the antennae are dark brown to black with orange at the base of the antennae that attaches to the head. There is a significant contrast between the color of the head and the color of the body, plus there is visible yellow-orange and brown banding.

Each AGH colony has one queen and many workers. The queen will live about one year, while the workers live between 15 and 35 days. In Asia, the AGH nest underground and prefer preexisting cavities, such as rodent burrows. Their nesting behavior seems to have changed in the U.S., as they are nesting in tree cavities, making their detection harder. The three nests identified so far were in dead alder trees.

All three nests have been eradicated, the last one on Sept. 10, 2021, and no detections have since been reported. Prior to eradicating the last nest, the WSDA collected data about their foraging behaviors and what was brought back to the nest. It was determined that wood pulp is used for nest construction and the thorax (the main body part just behind the head of insects) was used to feed the young AGH.

It is reported that AGH feed by themselves on various insects such as beetles, members of the mantid family (praying mantis, for example), caterpillars and spiders during the spring and summer. It is during the fall that the AGH workers attack in large numbers other "bee" species such as yellowjackets, paper wasps and honeybees. Honeybees are particularly vulnerable compared to wild bee populations, as the honeybees are concentrated in hives.

Honeybees pollinate over 100 crops, including tree fruits, berries and tomatoes — just to mention a few of my favorites! Additionally, the production of honey would be threatened should hives be attacked by AGH in the fall. Government officials also suggest that should the AGH spread, it would become an additional stressor on top of other existing stresses that are causing the honeybee population to decline.

The AGH sting can be painful, and can cause health complications for people who are susceptible. In 2013, 50 people were reported to have died from AGH stings in Asia. Beekeepers are at greater risk for AGH stings, as the personnel protective equipment that beekeepers typically wear when tending their hives does not provide sufficient protection.

There are other insects that may be confused with AGH. Many wasps, hornets and even bees have similar characteristics to the AGH. There are, however, other characteristics distinguishing them from AGH, most notably their smaller size.

One of the insects that might be confused are cicada killers. Cicada killers are intriguing insects, as they actually hunt cicadas by immobilizing and taking them back to their nest burrowed in the soil. The female lays her eggs in the nest and the cicadas will be used as a food source when eggs hatch and young emerge. I had the opportunity to observe a nest of cicada killers this summer and was fascinated with what I was seeing!

Another insect lookalike is the European giant hornet, which became established in North America after its introduction from Europe over 200 years ago. It measures about 1 inch and prefers to nest away from humans. The European giant hornet differs from the AGH, as it has a darker red to brown on its face and body.

The USDA and WSDA continue to ask residents to be alert and report any sightings of the Asian giant hornet beginning in late summer. While it could be a while, and hopefully never, for AGH populations to move east, we should be aware of AGH but also take time to determine if what we might at first glance think is the hornet might in fact be a lookalike.

Judy Wright is the senior agriculture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Seneca County. For more information, visit senecacountycce.org or call (315) 539-9251 ext. 109.

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