Bug experts dismiss worry about US 'murder hornets' as hype

The “murder hornet”

If all the pandemic-related news is getting you down, here’s some non-coronavirus news that should help you relax.

  • Astronomers have located a black hole “close” to Earth. OK, close is relative on the galactic scale. This black hole is about 1,000 light-years away and each light-year is 5.9 trillion miles. But I’m sure social media will have that whittled down to a few miles in no time.
  • Arizona is sinking. The combination of groundwater pumping and hotter temperatures is lowering water tables. And as the land subsides, fissures open big enough to devour infrastructure and swallow livestock.
  • And just when you thought it was safe to go outside again after a long stay-at-home stint, we have the American invasion of “murder hornets.” Or as PinalCentral copy desk guru Jeff Jackson would insist we call them, by their legally proper term, “Homicide Hornets.”

Anyway, the world’s largest hornet, a 2-inch killer, has been found in Washington state.

The invader from Japan got its nickname because it raids beehives and tears the heads off worker bees and devours the young, leaving bits of bee parts all over the place.

Now social media is all abuzz about these monsters spreading out across the country stinging unsuspecting humans while laying waste to the helpless honey bees.

The “hype” is similar to the 1970s public scare when Africanized honey bees, nicknamed “killer bees,” started moving north from South America.

Wendy Moore, an associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona, is an expert on bees and wasps. She says the giant Asian hornets, Vespa mandarinia, are similar to honey bees with one exception.

“But unlike the honey bees that harvest plant pollen to feed their young, this hornet harvests bee bodies to feed their young. The wasps are carnivores, whereas honey bees are vegans,” she said.

So far only a few hornets have been found in Washington. Many insect experts say the hype around the hornets greatly exaggerates their presence and danger to humans.

None have appeared in Arizona, but if they do show up we are prepared.

We Arizonans are used to living around plenty of venomous insects and reptiles. I had a friend visit from Utah one time and we went out on a hike and encountered three rattlesnakes.

He hasn’t been back.

As for insects, we have to deal with scorpions in our homes, fire ants in our yards, swarms of killer bees in our trees and wasps with stingers bigger than lawn darts found in an Apache Junction trailer park.

Murder hornets? (Yawn)

One Arizona wasp in particular has the name and a Halloween look to fit its reputation. Straight out of a Stephen King novel, the tarantula hawk has bright orange wings and a pitch black body. As a kid I was taught to give these flying ghostly creatures a wide berth. My friends and I didn’t need any coaching.

Luckily the tarantula hawk is solitary and doesn’t move about in swarms or have nests to defend. They don’t seem to care much about humans because they are busy stalking their primary prey — tarantulas.

You see, the sting from these predator insects paralyzes the tarantula but doesn’t kill it. Then the wasp lays its eggs on the body of the spider. When the eggs hatch, the larva feed on the live tarantula.

Just another vicious life cycle tale in the Arizona desert.

If the sting from the tarantula hawk can paralyze a tarantula, imagine what it must feel like if it stings you.

Well, you don’t have to imagine it because Justin O. Schmidt, an entomologist at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center, did it for you. In the 1980s Schmidt intentionally got all the stinging insects to sting him, then rated the pain. The Schmidt Pain Index is now considered the primary guide to knowing which insects to avoid and which ones to “get the hell away from.”

The index breaks down stings into four categories, with Pain Level 4 being the worst. And the tarantula hawk has the highest score.

Schmidt described the tarantula hawk sting as “blinding, fierce and shockingly electric.”

The composition of the tarantula hawk venom is unknown, though the duration of pain from the sting is short-lived, lasting only approximately 5 minutes.

Well, that is good to know.

Experts say honey bees in Asia developed a defense against the murder hornets when they get into their nests by violently flapping their wings at the same time, raising the temperature inside the hive and cooking the invaders. Can you imagine what our aggressive bees would do to the hornets in our hot desert? And if the hornets do show up here, the tarantula hawk just might find them to be a tasty alternative for their young to dine on.

The hunter becomes the hunted in Arizona very quickly.

So murder hornets don’t scare us. We’ve got more than enough stinging bugs to be concerned about already. So bring ‘em on.

As for the parasitic “zombie fly” , that’s a different matter.

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You can reach Andy Howell at ahowell@pinalcentral.com

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