Ann Wright: The bug squad quells fears about aggressive hornet |

Ann Wright: The bug squad quells fears about aggressive hornet

Ann Wright

In some media and news outlets, a recent warning was issued about some huge, vicious hornets — dubbed “murder hornets”. The reports have been about the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), a potential killer, attacking honey bee hives, killing adult bees, larvae and pupae within the hive. On a human level, although the hornets have a potent, painful sting (like many hornets), they generally don’t kill a person unless the person is allergic to the venom or has sustained multiple stings.

Responding to the uptick in the news reports about this “killer” on the loose, Kathy Keatley Garvey, Communications Specialist for UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology responded via the Bug Squad blog post published on May 4 (

Garvey dispelled the fear and sensationalism surrounding the recent “hornet” reports. According to Garvey and noted UC Davis wasp expert, researcher Lynn Kimsey, a small nest of this Asian hornet was found on Vancouver Island last September, and was destroyed by local biologists. Subsequently last fall, a single dead hornet identified as Vespa mandarinia was found early last December in Blaine, Washington, near the Canadian border. Kimsey, Director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology indicated that, “There is no evidence that there are any more hornets in the vicinity of Vancouver or anywhere else on the West Coast.” Last fall was the first detection of this species in North America, Kimsey reports, “and, the so-called ‘murder hornets’ are not out to get us.”

However, researchers at Washington State University are on the lookout. Because hornets make their nests in the summer, the most likely time to catch the invasive pest is between July and October. Since the Asian giant hornet is a threat to honeybees, beekeepers in Washington state have been enlisted to help defend against this predator by locating, identifying and trapping the hornets.

So, what is the difference between hornets, wasps and bees? Basically, hornets are simply large wasps. Bees and wasps are in the order of Hymenoptera, and with over 115,000 species worldwide, Hymenoptera live in groups or colonies and are considered “social” insects. These insects typically have two pairs of clear wings and chewing mouthparts. Both bees and wasps are important pollinators and are essential to crop production. Like wasps, hornets are sometimes solitary scavengers. Unlike honeybees, many wasp species are predators that eat other insects like caterpillars and beetles.

The Asian giant hornet does live up to the name. Several specimens of Asian giant hornets are housed in the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis. The largest AGH, which is a queen, measures about an inch and a half long. Compared with the European honeybee queen which is a little over half-inch long, the Asian giant is, no doubt, a creature to respect.

For social bees and wasps, the stinger is the means for the insect to attack, immobilize prey and defend the nest. Because the stinger is a modified egg-laying device, it only occurs in female bees, wasps and hornets. The males or drones may look and sound intimidating, but they cannot deliver a sting. A “bee sting” may be blamed on a foraging honeybee although the more aggressive wasp may be the culprit. Honeybees have barbed stingers and die after stinging because the stinger is left behind, rendering the bee helpless and unable to recover. Due to the nature of honeybees, they are less likely to sting unless provoked. Wasps, however are able to sting repeatedly.

Locally and in the western states, two of the more common social wasps include yellowjackets and paper wasps. Yellowjackets are in the family of Vespidae and include the most common species sometimes called “meat bees,” but are really wasps. These smaller wasps are known for making themselves unwelcome at picnics and outdoor events where they are attracted to meat, sugary foods and drinks. They also consume the rotting fruit on the ground in home orchards.

How to avoid stings

The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management site offers suggestions for avoiding stings ( Since bees and wasps may be attracted to odors in the environment, it is suggested not to use perfume, cologne or scented soaps if working in an area near bee or wasp activity. Avoid going barefoot in vegetation, especially where clover or blooming ground cover is growing. Be observant of the area around you. If insects are seen flying to or from a particular place, avoid it. If working in an area that may have wasps or bees around, wear long pants and long-sleeved shirt. Since stinging insects often fly around the top of their target, a hat with mosquito net or veil may be a good idea, or if unprepared, pull the shirt over your head and run away.

The best way to avoid being stung is to avoid the insects that sting! Most social wasps are beneficial by eliminating a large number of other pest insects, and should be protected and allowed to nest in places where there is little human activity. Know where they are and try not to go near their nesting place. If a wasp nest must be eliminated, it is safest to contact a professional exterminator to take on the task.


The Master Gardeners of Nevada County have been directed to continue to limit on-site operations. Therefore, the Master Gardeners office in Grass Valley (at the Veteran’s Hall) remains closed. However, Master Gardeners are still accessible via the website ( at the “Got Questions” link as well as on Facebook. Live radio shows, “Master Gardeners and Friends” are being aired on KNCO at AM-830 from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener.

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