Philip Bovenkamp knew he might have something unusual on his property near Blaine, Washington, when he spotted it recently — flashing by like a dragonfly but “bigger than anything that would come by here.” His suspicions only grew when he heard a low-pitched buzzing sound — first outside, and then again inside his shop, where he had gone to fetch a tool.
“By that time,” he said, “I was convinced I was dealing with a murder hornet.”
And he was.
Bovenkamp’s discovery last month that there were Asian giant hornets landing on a wasp nest in his shop touched off an effort this week by the Washington State Department of Agriculture to find and destroy their colony before they can decimate honeybees that are critical to the region’s crops, including raspberries and blueberries.
“It may be a very daunting task to find the exact location,” Sven Spichiger, a department entomologist, said in an online news conference on Friday. “But, you know, that’s what we’re all prepared for, and looking forward to — finding that nest and taking it out.”
Asian giant hornets, which some researchers call murder hornets, rocketed to entomological notoriety last year after they were discovered for the first time in the United States, in Washington state, prompting officials to issue a pest alert and warn that the hornets pose a threat to honeybees.
At up to 2 inches long, Asian giant hornets are the world’s largest hornets, and they are notorious for using their powerful mandibles to attack and destroy honeybee hives in a matter of hours. With their potent stinger, they can also deliver agonizingly painful venom. In Japan, the hornets kill up to 50 people a year.
In Washington state, the search for the colony near Bovenkamp’s property, which is near the Canadian border and about 30 miles south of Vancouver, has taken on particular urgency because the hornets are about to enter their “slaughter phase,” Spichiger said. That’s when they attack beehives in force, removing and decapitating every bee inside and then harvesting the brood and pupae for food.
Bovenkamp said he had spotted the Asian giant hornet on his property on Sept. 21 and had used a can of wasp spray to kill it. He said he and his wife, Debbie, had already been paying close attention to insects in the area because their daughter, Jillian, 10, had been collecting them for a school project. The Asian giant hornet, he knew, could be especially vicious.
“I was a little weak in the knees” after seeing the hornet up close in the shop, he said. “My heart was beating fast.”
After Bovenkamp reported the hornet to the state Agriculture Department, Chris Looney, a state entomologist who went to the property to investigate, managed to catch an Asian giant hornet in a net — the first one caught alive in the United States, according to the department.
Department scientists then tried to glue a tracking device to the hornet, in hopes of following it back to its nest. But the glue didn’t dry fast enough, Spichiger said, and the tracking device slipped off just as they were about to release the hornet. The glue also stuck to the hornet’s wings, rendering it unable to fly, he said.
“You do have to be very patient and wait till it dries,” Spichiger said. “But when you’re handling an Asian giant hornet, obviously, it doesn’t want you handling it.”
He said the department had peppered the area with 30 traps baited with orange juice and rice wine in an effort catch and tag another live hornet.
“We are supremely confident that, at least for the next couple of weeks, we’re probably going to snag one, if not more, of them,” Spichiger said. “And we’ll be able to give this another try.”
The state Agriculture Department has also set up an emergency hotline for beekeepers to call if a hive is being attacked by Asian giant hornets — “similar to 911,” Spichiger said.
“It is extremely important that they contact us immediately,” he said. “Make note of what direction the hornets are flying off in so that we can locate the nest and destroy it.”
The slogan for the effort, he said, is “track it, don’t whack it.”
Despite failing to glue the tracking device to the hornet on Wednesday, officials said they had found evidence of at least five other hornets in the area this week, increasing their confidence that a colony could be nearby.
In one case, Spichiger said, a homeowner presented the department with a photograph taken by a doorbell camera of an Asian giant hornet — its large yellow head clearly visible through the peephole.
He said the department had not heard of any reports yet of beehives being attacked, but he urged the public to remain vigilant.
“This is the season to be on guard,” he said.
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