The world's largest species of hornet invaded Washington state in December. Now, seven months later, state officials have finally managed to catch one of the "murder hornets" — but they have less than two months to catch the rest before mating season begins and the species has a chance to grow.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture announced on Friday that it captured its first Asian giant hornet on July 14 in a bottle trap near Birch Bay in Whatcom County. A lab confirmed the hornet as part of the invasive species on July 29.
This was the first time the state found a murder hornet in a trap, rather than in the environment, a WSDA press release said. There have been five prior confirmed sightings of the hornet in the state. Sven Spichiger, managing entomologist for the state department, said the finding is "encouraging" because they now know the traps work.
"But it also means we have work to do," Spichiger said.
Now, Washington officials are racing against the clock to find the rest of the hornets and eradicate them from the state before the hornets start to reproduce. Around mid-September, the queens will mate with male hornets and start reproducing new queens and workers, the department said.
"Destroying the nest before new queens emerge and mate will prevent the spread of this invasive pest," the department said.
Officials are now using infrared cameras and placing additional traps to catch live hornets. They then plan to tag the hornets and track them back to their colony so that the entire colony can be destroyed.
"If it becomes established, this hornet will have negative impacts on the environment, economy, and public health of Washington State," the department says on its website.
Murder hornets are typically around 2 inches long and have a large orange and yellow head with prominent eyes and a black-striped abdomen. In an environmental assessment, the state said that the predatory insects usually nest in pre-existing ground burrows or decayed trunks and roots near the ground.
Along with potentially displacing small native mammals that would typically live in these spots, if left to populate the area, the murder hornets could devastate the critical honeybee population.
From late summer to early fall, these hornets go through a "slaughter phase" against bee hives, decapitating the adults and eating the larvae and pupae. In a matter of hours, the hive can be completely destroyed.
The loss of the bees could prove detrimental. The state estimated that one-third of its food supply depends on insect pollination, and bees conduct the majority of that work.