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Asian giant hornets: how dangerous are they?

The insect, which has been described as a giant ‘murder hornet’ and is commonly known as the Asian giant hornet, is the world’s largest species of hornet with a body length of around two inches. Although native to certain parts of Asia, the hornets are now being found in other parts of the world. Some experts think that the claims being made of the threat the species represent may have been sensationalised, but why then, have they been nicknamed murder hornets, and should we be afraid?

What exactly are these murder hornets?

The Japanese media has referred to the flying insect as ‘murder hornets’ for many years, but the term gained global recognition after a New York Times article that was published in May 2020 used the same term. The article was based on the report of a beekeeper, Ted McFall, who had spotted a mass of our common bee’s carcases all over the ground with their heads torn from their bodies.

The murder hornets, or Asian giant hornets, are predator to bees as they feed their young with the bees’ thoraxes, which is why they decapitate the bees as a part discarded. With a potent venom, an ability to spit it, and stinger long enough to puncture a beekeeping suit, they aren’t much welcomed by us humans, either. Although there is no evidence to suggest that they want to sting us, in fact they are not typically aggressive to humans unless threatened, much like bees. In Japan, these hornets kill up to 50 people a year, which in the grand scheme of things, is quite rare. These facts support the case that these giant hornets are considered a much greater threat to the bee population than to humans.

The hornet nest found in Washington

In December 2019, after the first hornets appeared in the state of Washington, US, state officials asked the public in April to report sightings of these hornets before they bred and established themselves in the country, which could have the potential to kill bee populations.

On 22 October 2020, the first one of these giant hornet nests ever in the US was found in Blaine, Washington, after the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) spent months of trapping and searching for them. Entomologists first attached radio trackers to the hornets that were found in order to track and follow them back to their nest, which was finally found inside the cavity of a tree. Normally however, Asian giant hornets nest in the ground, but a dead tree seems to be the occasional home base too.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we did it,” a spokesperson in Washington publicly announced. The removal of the nest, according to a statement by the WSDA, “appears to have been successful.” They added that the pest program “vacuumed numerous specimens out of the nest,” and with permission from the land owner of which the bees were found, may entirely take out the tree.

The bee hungry creatures have not shown much trouble in the UK. However, it is not uncommon for the transferral of insects to be accidentally moved around by the importation and exportation of goods such as timer, soil, flowers or fruit. Here’s how you can know whether you’ve seen one:

How do you spot an Asian giant hornet?

Think cartoon hornet, with exaggerated features. Asian hornets are not easily confused with any other species when you know what to look for, they have a much darker brown or black and velvety body. A key feature is their dark abdomen, except for the fourth segment near the stinger, which is yellow. Their thorax will always be black or brown, and their legs have yellow tips. They are never active at night, whereas European Hornets, which are also as big and is the most likely hornet to be confused with, may be. They are partial to warmer climates too, which is why they like the months between April and November.

A note to remember

Some insects have latched onto the fact that striped predators (such as their venomous cousins like hornets, wasps and bees) inspire fear, so have copied them in appearance to keep themselves safe by giving the impression of danger to their own predators, while being completely harmless themselves. Clever little things.

A fly-by over the US vice-presidential election debate

In case you couldn’t sit through the US vice-presidential debate between current vice president Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris on 7 October, we took the painful task of summarising it for you upon ourselves, although—it really wasn’t as uncomfortable to watch as the first presidential debate between Biden and Trump.

What happened during the US vice-presidential debate?

The face-off between Pence and Harris that took place on Wednesday 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah, was far more civil than the somewhat chaotic presidential event prior. But even so, some sharp exchanges were still featured over COVID-19, the China policy, health care and the creation of new jobs.

To summarise the debate on COVID-19

With President Trump currently ill with COVID-19, the vice-presidential role seems to have received more attention than usual. Voters told the BBC that they were pleased with the civility between the two candidates during the 90 minute long debate.

There were undoubtedly some heated remarks on a range of policy issues, with the strongest disagreements being about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Pence defended the presidential administration’s actions, but Harris called it “the greatest failure of any presidential administration.”

Talking of the virus, the pair were separated by glass barriers as a precaution against the spreading of COVID-19, and unsurprisingly, the global pandemic was the opening topic of the debate. Harris’ most pungent line was when she cited the coronavirus death statistics. With 210,000 Americans dead, she charged the Trump administration with “ineptitude” and “incompetence.”

Pence seemed to expect this, and his response was ready. He stated that the Biden-Harris plan was largely a copy of what the administration was already doing, and he boasted the speedy progress of a vaccine while linking Harris’s criticism of the administration as an attack on first-responders and US healthcare workers.

Surprisingly, both candidates didn’t spend much time on the fact that the White House has now become the latest coronavirus hotspot.

The memories of the presidential debate from the week prior lingered for all watchers, and both vice candidates seemed to have this in mind, as Pence’s typically calm and methodical style served as a counterpoint to Trump’s aggressive stance. That being said, he did attempt interruptions but Harris turned up ready. “Mr Vice-President, I’m speaking,” she said. “If you don’t mind letting me finish, then we can have a conversation.”

To summarise the debate on climate change

Both parties seemed pretty uncomfortable on this topic to say the least. Presidential candidate Biden has recently expanded his plan to address climate change, and Harris was an original sponsor of the Green New Deal climate proposal which has set ambitious, yet necessary, targets in order to reduce carbon emissions.

Pence advertised America’s clean air and clean water while refusing to address the fact that climate change is one of the driving factors behind events like wildfires and hurricanes. He also refused to say that climate change is an existential threat and repeated Donald Trump’s claim that forest management was “front and center” of the historic wildfires in the American west.

The vice president claimed that Biden would ban fracking (a technique that fractures the underground rock as a means of increasing the flow of trapped gases), which Harris denied with the statement “I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact.”

Pence gave an array of misleading answers on the problem of hurricanes, saying that the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that there are no more hurricanes today than in the past. However, analysis this month has shown that hurricanes have become much stronger and more damaging around the world since the late 70s. Pence was criticised for his climate responses not only by climate scientists and activists but by former allies.

The fly

As tensions rose to what feels like a constant boiling point around the world, a tired fly uninterested in social distancing and seeking a rest, parked itself onto Pence’s perfectly white and coiffed hair for a full two minutes and three seconds. With no comment, it happily buzzed off leaving us to judge on whether it was a sign on what to do next from nature.

Biden tweeted a photo of himself gripping a fly swatter—talk about taking advantage of an evidently smelly situation.

Shortly after people noticed the fly, memes flooded the internet. While Pence is likely to notice some of them, then again, there is no such thing as bad publicity, right?