May 5, 2020

UW-Superior biology professor talks 'murder hornet'

The news has been buzzing (get it?) the past few days with the discovery of the “murder hornet” in the United States. UW-Superior biology professor and honey bee apiary manager Dr. Edward Burkett provides some information on the hornet and helps separate fact from fiction.

University Marketing and Communications: What exactly is the murder hornet?

Edward Burkett: Vespa mandarinia, otherwise known as the “murder hornet” or more correctly the “Asian giant hornet,” is the largest hornet in the world. Asian in origin and most commonly found in Japan, its preferred habitat is forested areas. It is thought to have been found in the northwest U.S. around September, yet how it arrived is a bit of a mystery.

UMC: Where does it live?

EB: Like our yellowjacket, V. mandarinia is a ground nester and like all wasps and hornets it is a predator.

UMC: Is it really as dangerous as is implied?

EB: At two-inches in length, it is a monster hornet with a stinger that is a quarter of an inch long. In Japan last year, this hornet killed over 50 people. You do not want to get stung by one of these babies! If you get stung a dozen times by this hornet, it will kill you. At present, a lot of research is being done on the venom of this hornet. The venom is very toxic.

UMC: How does this hornet behave in nature?

EB: The Asian giant hornet’s life cycle is very similar to our yellowjackets. This hornet has few predators and is a top arthropod predator. Because it is so big and its venom is very potent, it can basically kill just about any kind of insect, even a praying mantis. Its favorite prey is beetles, but it will feed on any kind of arthropod it can kill, including honey bees.

UMC: Do you know what the exact danger is to honey bees?  

EB: Reports indicate it only takes one to three dozen V. mandarinia to kill an entire honey bee colony (50,000 bees) and unfortunately, the western honey bee found in the U.S. has no defense. It actually hunts honey bees in three phases. The first phase begins by attacking honey bees in mid-air while they are flying. In the second phase, 2 - 50 hornets attack the hive (often called the slaughter phase), and in the third phase the hornets occupy the hive for several days and finish it off. Twenty to 30 adult hornets can easily kill 5,000 to 25,000 honey bees in one to six hours.

UMC: Is the hornet a threat to all honey bees?

EB: Unlike the western honey bee that we have in the U.S., the Japanese honey bee does have a defense against this hornet. It attacks the scout hornets by forming a ball of bees around the invader. The honey bees then vibrate their wings and create heat. The high temperature and high carbon dioxide levels kill the hornet.

UMC: Is there a chance the hornet could make it to Wisconsin and Minnesota?

EB: I don’t think we have to worry about the “murder hornet” showing up on our doorstep this summer, but it will be interesting to see what happens on the west coast. If the hornet does begin to spread across the U.S., honey bees are in jeopardy and the social/economic cost could be enormous.

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