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Rumors of an “murderous hornet” apocalypse may have been exaggerated

As if 2020 needed an additional disaster, the year also brought us “killers”.

When two Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia) were spotted in Washington and nearby British Columbia in May, news headlines announced their “arrival” with a strange mixture of horror and joy. It does not matter that the invaders had been seen in the state the previous year; somehow he felt they belonged to 2020.

Science News tried to calm the buzz of the facts. On the one hand, the invasion is not as apocalyptic as some headlines have suggested, as life science writer Susan Milius reported (SN: 7/4/20 and 7/18/20, p. 14). Not only is this not the first large hornet to invade the United States, predatory insects hunt bees, not people. And hornets aren’t exactly taking over. Scientists have made an extensive effort to eradicate them – Washington officials found and destroyed their first nest in October – and a map published this year suggests that difficult habitat strips could hamper the wave of hornets across America (SN: 11/20/20 , page 12).

That didn’t stop people from all over the country from thinking they found one. “Suddenly, the species of local wasps and hornets with views … hanging in the corners of people’s gardens for millennia become objects of panic calls,” says Gale Ridge, entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. Ridge has been getting those calls.

Concerned readers have also come to Science News. We shared with Ridge the half-dozen photographs of suspected murderous hornets we received. He spotted European hornets, bald-faced hornets (technically yellow jackets) and robber flies. There are no murder horns.

"In public opinion, hornets are 'here,'" Ridge says, patiently explaining to his bewildered calls that hornets are being intercepted nearly 3,000 miles away across an entire continent.

“The combination of media listening and over-dramatization of the facts by the media creates an anxiety-based stew,” says Ridge. Combat that anxiety by teaching local residents about New England insects, such as European wasps and cicada killer wasps that are often confused with Asian giant wasps. “One creates a new book of informative stories about which callers can relax, feel comfortable, and thrive,” she says.

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