Washington State officials are frantically searching for a colony of Asian giant hornets—also known as murder hornets—before the invasive species enters its “slaughter phase.” Because of course that’s a thing.
Washington State Department of Agriculture personnel kicked off a campaign this week to uncover a murder hornet colony following a string of sightings near Blaine, Washington, the New York Times reports. The hornets are about to enter their “slaughter phase,” a period in their life cycle when they descend upon their prey of choice, bees, in droves to harvest them for food, state entomologist Sven Spichiger said in a virtual press conference Friday.
The violent process, in which these hornets are known to decapitate every last bee in a hive, can wipe out entire colonies of honey bees, an already threatened species in the U.S. that farmers depend on for pollinating many of their crops.
State entomologists found evidence of six hornets in the area this week, leading them to suspect that a nest may be nearby, the Associated Press reports.
“We hope to locate the nest in a couple of weeks and eradicate it,” Spichiger told the outlet.
An agency spokesperson also told the Times that officials caught their first live specimen this week. They intended to equip the hornet with a tracker so as to follow it back to its nest, but their first attempt failed spectacularly. On Wednesday, officials tried to glue a radio tag to the hornet, but not only did the glue not dry fast enough, causing the tracker to slip off, it also stuck to the hornet’s wings and made it unable to fly.
“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.”
The team set up 30 traps baited with orange juice and rice wine throughout the area to try and capture another, the Times reports. At Friday’s press conference, Spichiger said the department was confident it would catch another live specimen within the next few weeks.
“It may be a very daunting task to find the exact location,” he added. “But, you know, that’s what we’re all prepared for, and looking forward to—finding that nest and taking it out.”
In the meantime, the agency has established an emergency hotline “similar to 911” for beekeepers to contact if their hives come under siege. The department’s campaign encourages beekeepers to “track it, don’t whack it” and take note of which direction the hornets fly toward so as to pinpoint possible nest locations.
A total of 15 murder hornets have been found in the state since spottings first began cropping up in 2019, the department said. In August, officials successfully captured their first two specimens, a queen and a male, proving that their DIY traps worked. Asian giant hornets are the largest in the world at 2 inches (5 centimeters) so traditional hornet traps just won’t cut it.
As their name would suggest, Asian giant hornets are native to China, Japan, and other Asian countries. Experts are still trying to figure out why the species began appearing in Washington State and the Canadian province of British Columbia last fall, with the prevailing theory being that they may have accidentally hitched a ride on a cargo ship or plane. In addition to being a threat to local bee populations, these hornets can be deadly to humans too. Stings from Asian giant hornet kill an estimated 50 people in Japan every year.