Giant hornets spell trouble for beekeepers, farmers in Washington state

It was roughly five months ago that the world’s largest wasp, the Asian giant hornet, was spotted in Washington state.

While life continued for millions of Americans, a number of beekeepers in Washington state were growing concerned – entomologists at the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) dropped everything and began designing a program to deal with it. The work is still unfolding today with less than two months to go until hornets native to our area start appearing.

The Asian giant hornet is getting more attention these days after a viral news article dubbed them “murder hornets.”

They are daunting insects, to be sure – though experts may not love the added fear brought on by the moniker. Asian giant hornets grow up to two inches long, and boast stingers that are long enough to pierce typical beekeeper suits.

An average of 30 to 50 people die in Japan from hornet stings. Typically, the most serious incidents happen when someone comes across the hive of the Asian giant hornet.

WSDA researchers were so concerned about the discovery of the insect within our borders last winter that they bought specialized safety suits from China to deal with potential sightings. They’ve even drafted rules to send crews in a pair in case one of their employees would be hurt during an attempted extermination.

“This is one of those things where once you see it you’ll never forget,” said Sven-Erik Spichiger, the managing entomologist at WSDA.

Right now the focus is on northern counties including Whatcom, Skagit, Island and San Juan counties. However, most of western Washington’s makeup is a perfect fit for the hornet’s preferred habitat – they typically nest at the base of conifer trees in low- lying areas near mountains.

A problem beekeepers didn’t need

While the Asian giant hornet sounds scary enough for everyday life, they’re more likely to put more fear into beekeepers – and that’s reason enough to scare the rest of us.

According to the USDA, about 35% of the world’s food crops depend on pollinators to reproduce. Scientists typically estimate one out of every three bites of food in America is linked to a honeybee. In Washington that includes everything from apples to cherries, pairs and peaches.

The problem is that honeybees have been dying off at rates that even our grandparents hadn’t heard of before the Asian giant hornet arrived, and they’re known to decimate hives of bees at a rapid pace.

A group of Asian giant hornets have been known to eradicate an entire beehive killing thousands of bees in roughly an hour, and the oversized hornet is capable of ripping the honeybees’ heads off. In Asia, native honeybees have adapted to fight back, but even when fighting back more than half of the hive will typically die off from the energy exerted to fight them off.

“It’s a scary time to be a beekeeper,” said beekeeper Peter Nolte, forcing a nervous laugh. “There’s just so much unknown.”

Nolte is the owner of Rainy Day Bees out of North Seattle and Shoreline. He counts on his honeybees for honey production – like many beekeepers he’s well aware of colonies dying off at rates that were once unimaginable.

KIRO 7 News met up with Nolte in late January when he was tending to a number of backyard hives that he works with in Shoreline. In the city, it’s not uncommon to lose a higher percentage of hives – but in recent years there’s been a lot of extra work to fight off a variety of pests that have made the business more difficult.

A small mite that was introduced to the United States by accident in the 1980s has led to issues for decades – they’re only now finding better ways to handle them. Add in climate change, pesticides, and habitat loss, and the last thing honeybees needed was a new predator.

“I think we’re all just praying that it stays away,” said Nolte. “At least as long as possible.”

Too few bees

Nolte is hardly alone in his concern about the Asian giant hornet. Filmmaker and amateur beekeeper Peter Nelson sounded the alarm in 2019 when he released his documentary film titled ‘The Pollinators.’

Nelson followed a number of beekeepers around the country, documenting their everyday life and struggles trying to keep the country’s multi-billion-dollar agriculture industry afloat.

“I think insects are somewhat maligned by people, and we depend on them so much more than most people think about,” explained Nelson.

He should know – the beekeepers he documented traveled state-to-state with hives strapped onto flat-beds to move them across the country in a mad rush to pollinate crops around the country. It’s an annual event that large beekeeping operations endure, though in recent years it’s become more and more difficult.

A 10% loss of bees in a year was scary 30 to 40 years ago, but in the past decade a loss of 30%- to 50% isn’t unheard of. That’s led to new practices of splitting hives and trying to manage hives to keep enough bees active from year to year.

“As one beekeeper said to me, ‘You have to be used to death,’” said Nelson. “It’s emotionally draining, beekeepers have dropped out because they can’t deal with it.”

What Washington is doing

Washington has been game-planning for the coming hornet season for months. The fight ahead could determine whether the Asian giant hornet is something our country “adapts” to, or if they can extinguish their spread.

As of now, there have been only two sightings of worker bees from the species near Blaine. The issue, according to Spichiger, is that confirmed sightings in Canada appear to be from a separate entry point – meaning they’ve not only arrived in our area, they’ve found their way here twice.

“If we put in an effort here and stop it, it literally could save the industry,” he said. “We’re not the only people that could see this sort of introduction, there are a lot of ports and places that get trades from the East. We’re very concerned if they don’t learn from what we’re going to experience – it could be worse in other parts of the country.”

This summer, researchers will set out hundreds of traps to continue looking for queens and workers. They are also discussing about new strategies to track the hornets back to their nests and destroy them. Researchers have discussed everything from heat-mapping tech to attaching radio-transmitting collars to hornets to track individual wasps back to their hives.

How you can help

In addition to the work the WSDA researchers are doing, they’ve been working with volunteers to capture and spot the Asian giant hornet.

They have taken information from colleagues in Japan, China, and Korea to learn the best practices to trap hornets. That information has been published for volunteers who want to set traps. You can find that information, here.

They’re also asking anyone who thinks they’ve spotted the Asian giant hornet to report sightings. The two easiest ways are by using the Washington Invasive Species app, or logging onto the public reporting page on the WSDA website.