Don't let the 'murder hornet' give wasps and bees a bad name

May 25, 2020

Before anyone panics, UM-Dearborn naturalist Rick Simek wants everyone to take a calming breath — they aren't here — and remember not all yellow-and-black-striped insects are the same.

Don't confuse the Giant Asian Hornet with other yellow and black bugs.
Don't confuse the Giant Asian Hornet with other yellow and black bugs.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

News outlets publicized the arrival of the "murder hornet" in the U.S. recently, creating a nationwide buzz over a giant insect with a B-movie creature name.

But before anyone panics and reaches for a rolled newspaper or can of Raid, UM-Dearborn naturalist Rick Simek has a few things to say about the black- and-yellow bug that keeps appearing in many of our social media feeds.

EIC Natural Areas Manager Rick Simek
EIC Natural Areas Manager Rick Simek
Rick Simek, EIC Natural Areas manager

Simek, Environmental Interpretive Center Natural Areas manager, continues to walk the EIC trails on his personal time and says there’s no sign of them on campus — or anywhere near our state. 

He’d also like to put their real name out there — Giant Asian Hornet or Vespa mandarinia if you’d like the scientific name — because it “sounds less sensational.”

Reporter chatted with Simek recently about the Giant Asian Hornet, along with some updates on what seasonal changes he’s seeing take place on campus as the grounds transition to summer.

Question: Do you have any concerns about the Giant Asian Hornet?

Rick Simek: My biggest concern is human perception of this insect and the confusion we may have with lookalikes in the bee/wasp world. Sometimes our perspective — if we have a certain association in our minds — overrides our ability for us to rationally interact with living things. Many people will group these insects together and it’s not good for us or the insects.

Bald faced hornet
Bald faced hornet
Bald-faced Hornets help remove pests from the garden. Photo by: Nichole Becker

For example, if someone sees any bee or wasp that looks like V. mandarinia while picnicking or out for a walk, they might unnecessarily freak out — there’s so much going on in the world today and spending time in nature is one way to relax. We don’t need to bring additional worry into our lives over an insect that isn’t even here. I want to make sure people know that the nickname ‘murder hornet’ doesn’t come from it attacking people and there is no evidence that they act overly defensive toward humans; they attack and kill helpful pollinators like honey bees. So let’s not turn on the bees over this; they have enough problems.

It’s not a secret that all kinds of bees, like the honey bee and the bumble bee, are extremely beneficial to us — their contribution saves us hundreds of billions of dollars in food production. And any gardener knows how helpful wasps can be — they remove unwanted pests. So please don’t react to the news of this invasive species by killing bees and wasps willy nilly. It’s important to remember that we share the world with other living things. Insects are vital to the functioning of our society and world. Birds need them as a food source. Bumble bees  give us wonderful fruit on our trees. There are so many ways everything is connected. A world without bees and wasps is much scarier than a problematic species.

Q: So we aren’t going to see them in our backyards?

RS: Not anytime soon, if ever. It's very fortunate that someone has already spotted V. mandarinia in what seems to be a relatively small geographic area along the northwest coast. This could prove to be critical in stopping its spread. We’d know if these Giant Asian Hornets have spread to the area — it’s relatively easy to because they will often leave dozens of headless honey bees at beekeepers’ hives. everywhere.

As with any new invasive species introduction, there is often a lag phase, which means that they need time to establish their populations before exploding onto the scene and causing substantial ecological and economic harm. I'm hopeful that the recent discovery in North America is within the time frame.

Q: Are you saying not to worry?

RS: Well, it’s not exactly ideal because they are an invasive species and our bee populations in North America, having never encountered them before, would be extremely vulnerable because North American bees do not appear to have adequate defense adaptations specific to the Giant Asian Hornet. Our concern should be for the bees and what happens if an invasive species doesn’t have anything in nature to stop it from destroying another. 

The news of the Giant Asian Hornet isn’t good. But the fear of them might be worse, especially during a time when we are all trying to stay well and find a bit of serenity in our lives — and one of the best places to look for that is outside.

Q: Speaking of spending time outside, what wildlife have you seen at the EIC Natural Areas recently?

There are so many new birds — every day you see something different. I saw a nice wave Eastern Kingbirds a little more than a week ago; they were stopping over in the Environmental Study Area on their way north after spending the winter in South America. And a Cooper's Hawk started building a nest right near an EIC entrance where school groups usually gather — these are fairly wary birds during the nesting season, so seeing them building a nest there was a reminder that things aren’t quite as they were before. Another sign that nature is getting a bit more elbow room: A baby mink was exploring a footpath that typically has a lot more human traffic. That was exciting to see.

If you see an interesting bird or animal when in the UM-Dearborn Natural Areas that you’d like to know a bit more about, take a photo and send me an email. I’m happy to identify and share what I know. We aren’t on the grounds like before, but the EIC staff is still available to help you learn a bit more about the creatures we share this planet with.

The EIC Environmental Study Area is  open daily from sunrise to sunset. When walking the trails, please follow Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders on social distancing, mask wearing and small groups. Simek would also like to remind nature-goers that fishing on site is prohibited and to leave bikes and dogs at home because they cause disruption and stress to the EIC wildlife.

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