Recently, a bug with a taste for honeybees donning a visage straight out of a science fiction novel has created a buzz on the internet; however, local beekeepers remain unworried.
Headlines pertaining to the insects, dubbed ‘Murder Hornets,’ have caused Gretchen Bee Ranch co-owner Thien Gretchen to receive a litany of messages from concerned neighbors over the potential threat to their many hives.
The nationwide trepidation surrounding the bugs, known as the Asian giant hornet, is an overreaction and the Gretchens’ hives, along with every other beehive in the country, is safe from the insects’ influence, she said.
“We’re not worried and we haven’t seen anything. There’s no cases anywhere except for Washington state as far as we know, and they eradicated that hive pretty quickly after they discovered them,” Gretchen said. “None of our beekeeping friends seem worried either. They aren’t necessarily that different from any other wasp, and I think their size and everything is blown out of proportion.”
Even if the bugs managed to escape their fate in Washington, precautionary measures taken around the nation would ensure the hornets never establish a meaningful population that could threaten honeybees, Gretchen said.
“There are so many programs in place to help protect the honeybee population,” she said. “Through private groups and social media being the way it is, I think the information of a sighting would get communicated out so quickly that I think there would be a rapid movement in the beekeeping industry and community to do something before it got out of control, if at all possible.”
Honeybees are no pushovers either and can defend themselves with populations reaching up to 100,000 occupants per hive in the spring and summer months, Gretchen said.
“A hive is pretty strong at taking care of their home,” she said. “[In] the time that it would take [a hornet] to grab a bee and start eating on it, there would be five to 10 other honeybees jumping on the hornet to defend because the girl being eaten will release a pheromone, and it alerts her sisters to help. I don’t know for sure if that would happen, but I’ve seen them do that with other wasps and hornets.”
According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture website, the Asian giant hornet is the largest species of hornet in the world measuring in at about 2 inches in length and is identified by its large orange and yellow head along with a black and yellow striped abdomen.
The hornets typically attack honeybee hives in search of larvae and kill honeybees by decapitation, leaving piles of headless bodies outside the hive — a sign by which some attacks are identified.
The Asian giant hornet generally does not attack people or pets; however, they can deliver multiple toxic stings if provoked with enough penetration to breach beekeeping protective clothing.
Gretchen said a great way to gauge a honeybee’s ability to protect their hive from the hornets is by looking to a bug most Texans are familiar with — the red paper wasp.
“The red wasp is pretty common around here, and they are always trying to go in and get free food,” she said. “They are significantly bigger than the bees, and it’s not like one bee is trying to kill this wasp. It’s several, and they take turns, and they are small in size but great in number, ‘I’ll punch you or try and sting you two or three or five times,’ and another will come and so after a while, those wasps will give up.”
The spread of the giant hornet phobia has reminded Gretchen of a similar situation that first unfolded decades ago, she said.
“It’s the same thing you saw when Africanized bees started appearing,” she said. “They became ‘killer bees,’ I guess because it sounds more exciting. But it really does a disservice to whatever creature it is being focused upon because they’re still honeybees, and it’s just a genetic thing where they happened to be Africanized.
“It creates fear in people, and that was in the ’80s, but even now, the whole issue comes up. It is an issue, and it is a concern, but it is so blown out of proportion.”
Gretchen said there are much more impactful issues for her fellow beekeepers to stress over.
“There are other things to worry about that are real threats like Varroa mites and stuff,” she said. “So something that isn’t even here is causing customers and new beekeepers to freak out, and we’re just trying to tell them, ‘don’t get distracted by these other things that aren’t even here and aren’t a real threat. Focus on what is really a concern like drought, starvation, and death of a hive because you’re too busy reading about Murder Hornets — go check your beehive.’”