Jordan: So earlier this week, I mentioned that we’d be covering stories beyond COVID-19 on this podcast, and I hoped that some more cheerful topics would help lighten our collective mood and help us all imagine better days, which brings me to the Murder Hornets.
News Clip: Well, it’s been dubbed the Murder Hornet– Murder Hornets– Murder Hornets– the so called Murder Hornets, giant hornets from Japan that are now in Canada, and the US. Scientists have dubbed them Murder Hornets.
Jordan: So yeah, if the first four months of 2020 didn’t quite have enough terror for you, no worries. This year has got you covered. In all seriousness though, the Murder Hornets are not a product of 2020 they did not just show up last weekend, and we probably shouldn’t be calling them Murder Hornets. That said, they’re an invasive species, they have been seen in Canada, they have the potential to disrupt our ecosystem, and I mean, they do kill people. And if you haven’t seen a picture of them yet, go look at one, they look like little flying demons. But what are they beyond a scary picture and a headline? What do they do, exactly, that’s so worrisome? How is British Columbia attempting to control their spread? And finally, is this another thing that seems terrifying until scientists tell us not to worry, and then a few months later I am hiding in my house again or what? Because right now I’m about to throw to Claire for our daily COVID-19 update, but if by September, Claire is doing a daily Murder Hornet update, I’m going to be pissed. Okay Claire, you’re up.
Claire: The federal government has announced a deal reached with the provinces to boost essential workers pay. It’s a $4 billion plan and it’s up to the provinces to decide who qualifies. But as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, everyone can agree that essential workers are risking their lives by doing their jobs during the pandemic, and they deserve a raise if they’re making minimum wage. Quebec is delaying the planned reopening of daycares, elementary schools and businesses in Montreal by one week, so they’re now scheduled to reopen it May 25th. This mostly comes from pressure from school boards who said teachers don’t feel safe going back to classrooms right now, and that they weren’t prepared to go back so soon. Saskatchewan has confirmed that schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic year, and it’s starting to think about what’ll happen comes September. Grade 12 graduation ceremonies have also been cancelled, so school divisions are trying to organize virtual ceremonies. And lastly, British Columbia says it’ll take up to two years to clear the backlog of surgeries that were put on hold because of COVID-19 and that’s best case scenario, if there’s no resurgence of the pandemic. More than 30,000 surgeries were put on hold two months ago, and the cost to get them done will be at least an additional $250 million. As of Thursday evening, 64,992 cases of COVID-19 in Canada with 4,524 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Paul Van Westendorp is the provincial apiarist for BC. He’s held the position since 1990. Hello, Paul.
Jordan: Why don’t we just start with the very first question is, what is a Murder Hornet, and is that actually a fair term for it?
Paul: No, this is the spillover for what we get from South of the border, this media invention. The term Murder Hornet generates an unnecessary amount of anxiety and of course, a fair bit of sensationalism, but that doesn’t really reflect on the correctness of this particular hornet. I mean, I’m not trying to dismiss or diminish the seriousness of this particular invasive species, but clearly this is not what it’s supposed to be called. And we prefer to call it either the Asian Giant Hornet, or to be more clear, we often call it by the scientific name, which is Vespa Mandarinia. But there’s Mandarin followed by IA, Mandarinia. And the reason we often use that term is because the genus Vespa is very well represented in Eastern Asia, and is comprised of something like 16 different species of hornets. And this particular one is the largest hornet species of all, in fact, the largest hornet in the world, and that one has then been found and confirmed in British Columbia since August last year.
Jordan: So can you describe it a little bit? You mentioned it’s the biggest one in the world. It looks terrifying. What is it like? What does it do? Why is it here?
Paul: Well, why it is here, maybe that is the most difficult question to answer because it is, the question would then be asked as to how did it get here? We do not know how it got here. But we have strong suspicion that it just was an inadvertent introduction through bulk containers that, at harbours or ships that came with containers or with important vehicles, things of that kind. And the reason we think that is because in Nanaimo, all finding so far is very close to either harbours or water or railroad tracks. So we think that these things are hitchhikers and from shipments that come, originate in Asia. The hornet itself is an Apex Hunter. In other words, it this on the very top of the food chain of the insect world, there are not many other insects that would ever dare to feast on these hornets. But instead, these hornets are feasting on other insects, that is their mission in life. They have– some pictures will show, they have unusually large heads, and that is to accommodate the gigantic mandibles, the eating apparatus, the mouthpiece, if you will, of these hornets so that they can very effectively eat other insects. So they’re the top predator of the insect world. And one of the reasons that we are somewhat concerned about this, is this particular species is a ground nester, does not make the traditional paper mache nests that you sometimes find with our native wasps and hornets, that you can sometimes see in vegetation or in the attic or something like this. No, the Asian Giant Hornet builds its nest in the ground, and therefore it is very difficult to detect it. It prefers forested habitat. So it is definitely not an nester in open fields, but prefers forest habitat. And it seems to be confined primarily in areas where there is quite a bit of moisture, in other words, it is a maritime climate favouring insect. And the worry that we have, they are two fold. It is classified as a serious honeybee predator and does quite a bit of damage to honeybee colonies later in the season. But the more immediate concern that we have, is its potential threat to human health and safety. In Japan where it occurs naturally, that insect is responsible for a few dozen human fatalities every year. Not for any offensive behaviour, but largely because it is fiercely defending its nest. And most of these fatalities occur because people inadvertently step on or disturb a nest and these huge Hornets are coming out and then do all kinds of damage.
Jordan: So that’s probably one of the things that unfortunately gave birth to the name Murder Hornet. But I’m really curious as to what these Hornet stings do to the body that makes it so much worse than a regular hornet sting? Are they poisonous? Are they just bigger and more dangerous?
Paul: The latter. The fact is, is that they– in fact has been reported that the honeybee venom is actually more powerful, except that honeybee is a tiny little character compared to this giant insect. The Asian Giant Hornet has a smooth stinging apparatus, rather than a barbed stinger, like what the honeybee has. And this hornet can therefore sting repeatedly, and can inject a fairly large volume of this venom. In addition to the venom itself, it also contains a peptide, an enzyme that causes tissue necrosis. So the wound that it creates with the stinger becomes even larger because part of the tissue then dissolves and creates bleeding and a potential infection.
Jordan: So that does sound really terrifying. So my automatic next question is, do we have a sense of how many of them are here? Where they are? What kinds of stuff are you guys doing to find that out?
Paul: Yeah, that is the challenge we face. So, contrary to the US media, which is typically very US centred, as you know, we have discovered this particular species since August and September of last year. And in Nanaimo is the only nest of the Asian Giant Horner that has ever been detected and destroyed in North America. But since that time, we have done extensive monitoring of the location out there and no other specimens were sighted. Then last fall, in fact, in the middle of November, suddenly a report came in, often single specimen found in an urban setting in White Rock. Now, White Rock is a small community South of Vancouver, very close to the Canada-US border. Three weeks later, to our big surprise, the Americans confirmed finding two specimens in one location. Now, these findings are quite interesting on two grounds. First of all, the White Rock– in both cases, we were surprised to have that kind of insect active at so late in the season. Normally, we would expect these insects to be hiding in small crevices or in places where they will just winter on their own as individuals, not as a nest at all. But normally that is expected to happen, just that the mated females that were born in August or thereabouts, after they emerge, they will mate and they will disperse from the nest. The nest will die out. And then those mated Queens or mated females, then will hide on their own in small protective locations. Those that survive the winter would then reappear in the spring and establish, or try to establish their own nest. So normally we would expect in November and December these mated females to be hiding and not being active. And to our big surprise, they were active. The one in Blaine in Washington state, it is only a couple of miles South of the border with Canada, there were two specimens found in that one location. And that gives us the additional concern that there is a possibility that this particular hornet was wintering in a nest situation. And that is raising the concerns much higher because there is now the potential for nest wintering, that would permit these hornets to start much earlier in the spring season, to start generating their offspring. So that was a big concern.
Jordan: Do we know yet if they have survived the winter? Have we seen any of them anywhere either in BC, or I guess in the neighbouring US location since spring hit?
Paul: No. And so that’s why most of the emphasis currently, both in British Columbia as well as in Washington State, is to put out traps and surveys to try to find them, and then to locate nests and destroy these nests. The problem with it is, as I just described earlier about the lifecycle, the way, how they traveled through the season, when those Queens emerge in the spring time, there are just basically a very few. The density of these Hornets is extremely low, and that is very difficult to basically find them. As the season progresses through the spring and summer season, the successful nests will slowly but steadily increase in numbers and all that offspring that this Queen produces, are all female and they are sterile workers, sterile females. They will never mate on their own, but they will basically help their mother to enlarge the nest. So you have successive generations raised by this nest through the summer season until finally, in late July and August, the nest is going through hormonal changes essentially. And the original Queen is started to be rejected. And at the same time, the nest is ready to produce offspring that will actually sexually mature. And in order to secure that production, or those sexually maturing individuals, they need a lot of protein. And it is at that stage, when these hornets will start to predate on honeybee colonies. Now I have quite a bit of confidence in beekeepers. They’re pretty innovative in their thinking, and they probably will find ways to make it fairly difficult for those hornets to be very successful in their predation. I’m not saying there is no damage going to happen. There definitely will be. But I think that many beekeepers will find ways of protecting their hives. And of course, as I mentioned earlier, the head size of these Hornets is so large that beekeepers who would place certain barriers or screens in front of the entrance of their colonies will definitely reduce the predation pressure that these hornets could pose. So that is basically the cycle in which this occurs. So right now we are trying to find these Queens and trying to find some of the earliest offspring of these nests, but that is a real difficult task. We believe that traps and those will become more successful come middle of July onward, when the number of these hornets will be more apparent. But in addition, we also make appeals to the public, to municipalities, and most importantly to local beekeepers, to have their eyes and ears open and report anything that they find suspicious, to be submitting a report and to tell them where they are located, and things like this, so that we can narrow down our search for these insects.
Jordan: What risk do they pose to the ecosystem in general due to their predation of bees? I sort of, I get the scariness and the devastation that can cause to a human through stings, but what’s the cycle there that would concern you?
Paul: Good point. We don’t know. Keep in mind that as this particular species of insect is an apex predator, by definition in any ecosystem, the predator on the top of the pile generally are very few in numbers. But significant in what they can do if they put their minds to it. I mean, I like to draw into your analogy to a polar bear. The density of polar bears in the entire Arctic is exceedingly low, and therefore it is quite safe to walk around in the Arctic for you and I, except the moment that we run into one, where you and I would say, jeez, who can run faster? And that is somewhat analogous with this particular hornet. It is, of course, not native, so it will have to compete for food sources, together with all the other hornets and wasps that naturally occur out here. We do not know how it will succeed in its establishment, if it does establish itself. We believe, based on experts from other countries who have been dealing with this insect, it should not have too much difficulty to adapt to our coastal parts of Western Canada. The Americans are particularly concerned about this pest potentially traveling South, into Oregon State and from Oregon State into California. I have also been asked by people in Eastern Canada what the risks are for the spread in the rest of Canada. As I mentioned earlier, this particular hornet favours forested areas, and fairly moist conditions, and it is very implausible for it to be able to cross the Prairie provinces, simply because it is a gigantic geographical barrier, essentially. But we believe that perhaps this insect can spread successfully by hitchhiking on trains. And this is a concern, and the reason for that is, is because it is quite remarkable that the one in White Rock, as well as those that are found in Washington State, were all found very close to railroad tracks. And that would suggest that perhaps freight or imported vehicles or bulk shipments of something or other may carry these specimens, and spread them farther than what they would normally do on their own.
Jordan: So we started this conversation by you explaining why it was overly panicky to call the Murder Hornets. But then since then, everything that you’ve said to me has made me even more terrified of them. So I guess my last question, or one of my last questions is, do we have any idea how pervasive these things can get? And is it a question of– and I’m not– I don’t quite know how to say it– but is it a question of we either have to eliminate all of them, or they’re just going to exponentially grow? Or is there a scenario in which they stay low density and they kind of exist here, but don’t do that much damage?
Paul: I would think the latter, if they do manage to settle themselves permanently. You would have to consider this though with any invasive species there is, when you have an introduction taking place, there is an inevitable, so we say a natural, rate of mortality. And if the rate of introduction exceeds the natural mortality rate, then indeed you would have establishment of the pest. If, however, the rate of introduction, by whatever means, is below the natural rate of mortality, then that particular introduced pest will not be able to succeed and it will die out. So in this particular case, we do not know how it will interact in our environment in relation to both the physical environment, climatic conditions, the type of prey that is involved, the kind of vegetation they really need in order to proliferate, we do not know exactly how well or poorly this invasive species will manage. But we don’t want to take that for granted that it will not succeed. We assume that it will, and it is for that reason that we will continue to put in a great efforts to locate them and to eradicate nests wherever we can find them.
Jordan: Before I let you go, I just want to ask you, the last time something emerged that sounded really scary and I asked an expert about it, they said, Oh, you know, it’s a virus, but it’s probably not going to be that bad. And now I’m living in my basement. So can you tell me that this won’t happen with these hornets? Because it sounds like the beginning of another bad movie.
Paul: No, no. These are, again, apex predators can be dangerous when you encounter them. But in general, there is no way to expect this particular pest, if establishes itself successfully, that it will be basically overrunning the countryside and everybody has to be living in their basement and keep away from everything. No, that’s not the way it is going to happen. These are formidable predators and they are totally uninterested in us. They don’t do anything– out in the field, if you would ever run into one, they will ignore you. It is only with nest disturbance where you may have an unpleasant encounter. And this is not necessarily just human induced. It could also be pets, livestock, or wildlife that may trigger a defence mechanism that causes a whole bunch of these hornets to emerge from their ground nest. So no, we don’t expect any kind of– there is no reason for panic.
Jordan: Great. Thank you so much for indulging my anxiety and thank you for that incredibly detailed explanation. I feel like I learned a lot.
Paul: Well, you’re most welcome, thank you.
Jordan: Paul Van Westendorp, the provincial apiarist for British Columbia. That was The Big Story. If you would like more stories about more terrifying things, there are plenty of them thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find them all wherever you get your podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify. You can always talk to us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN, and of course, if you want to email, here’s the address. It is firstname.lastname@example.org we would love to hear from you, whether that’s in words or sound or video. We’ll share some of the best ones. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers. Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor. And I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Stay safe. Have a great weekend. Keep your head down, watch out for the hornets. And we’ll talk Monday.
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