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Britannica Insights: Murder Hornets



Transcript

[VIDEOCONFERENCE RING] MATT SINNOTT: Hi, John. Thanks for joining us again.

JOHN RAFFERTY: Absolutely, Matt. Good to see you again.

MATT SINNOTT: So since you are the editor for earth and life sciences, I definitely wanted to chat with you ASAP because I am seeing a lot of news and articles on the internet revolving around what people are calling a "murder hornet," which apparently just got to the United States. So my first question for you is, is that the actual name of this insect?

JOHN RAFFERTY: No, no. It's actually called the "Asian Giant Hornet." It obtained that moniker in Japan because the nickname in Japanese apparently roughly translates to "murder hornet," and certainly "murder hornet" sells more papers.

MATT SINNOTT: Right, right. That was going to be my next question is why are people calling it the "murder hornet"?

JOHN RAFFERTY: Well, I think there is some truth to that. If a person is stung multiple times or has an adverse reaction, some people actually pass away. But I think it has more to do with the ferocious appearance of the hornet.

This hornet is the largest hornet on the planet in excess of 1 and 1/2 to 2 inches. It's got a 3-inch wingspan. It looks really scary. There are a number of pictures on the internet where there's a beekeeper or someone else holding the hornet in their fingers, and it looks just very, very fearsome.

MATT SINNOTT: Can you talk a little bit about really what the threat is for a human when dealing with the Giant Hornet?

JOHN RAFFERTY: The threat to an individual human is low. Number one, yes, the hornet is large, and it does have a very painful sting. And that's going to certainly gets your attention. But in order to be affected by it in a way that it would threaten your life, you would have to be stung multiple times.

MATT SINNOTT: Yeah, I think a lot of that makes sense. And something else that I've read is that it's actually new to the United States. Is that correct?

JOHN RAFFERTY: It seems to be new to the United States, but it's unclear if the species is actually established itself. There has been a few individuals found in northern Washington State. Those individuals were dead, and there was also a hive that was discovered in British Columbia not so far away.

They seem to be separate introductions. Maybe they came over on packing crates or though the transportation industry somehow. But they seem to be new, and they are scary, at least to the agricultural community, because of the impact that they may have on honeybee populations. The Asian Giant Hornet is a predator, and its main prey are honeybees.

MATT SINNOTT: Why is the honeybee population important to the planet?

JOHN RAFFERTY: Oh, honeybees are probably one of or the most important group of pollinator species on the planet. They're responsible for pollinating over 3/4 of the nuts and fruits, as well as berries. They're just very, very important. I read a statistic-- every fourth bite of food is the result of honeybee pollination.

MATT SINNOTT: So let me ask you this question. If the honeybee population was to be totally wiped out, what would be the repercussions?

JOHN RAFFERTY: Well, it would be a very bad thing. Obviously, our crop production would go down. Some of the things like berries and fruits and nuts would be in short of supply because we would be relying on other pollinators-- bats, and birds, and things like that-- who may be less efficient in some of these different circumstances.

But also one thing we have to realize is that the honeybees provide a service of pollination that we don't have to do ourselves. By eliminating the honeybees, we would have to do their work for them. So we would have to have people out there with brushes, brushing pollen onto each individual plants in order the pollinate them. And that can be even more expensive.

Right now, beekeepers travel around with hives, and they bring them to different farms. And the bees actually pollinate the plants on the farms, and they collect them again and move to the next farm. Without that service, we would have to do that all manually.

MATT SINNOTT: I hear people say all the time, if you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone.

JOHN RAFFERTY: Yeah, it's true. But it's also true with the Asian Giant Hornet. They're only really aggressive if you mess with them, or if you end up standing on a hive and disturb them inadvertently. But those cases are so rare. And I think because of the hype surrounding this insect we've become more fearful and think that there's a greater risk than there actually is.

MATT SINNOTT: And I mean it is a scary looking insect.

JOHN RAFFERTY: Oh, it sure is.

MATT SINNOTT: The bee on its own, and spiders, and then regular hornets that we do have here in the United States, and then you're saying that this thing is two or three times the size of insects that we're already scared of is obviously just going to add on to fear. But at the same time, if it's bringing to light the issue of the honeybee population and how important honeybees are to the planet and to us, that may be a positive that we can take away from this.

JOHN RAFFERTY: That is true. Any spotlight that we can provide on honeybees but also insects in general. Insects around the world are facing declines in their populations because of pesticide use.

There is a topic that's out there called the "insect apocalypse." We are seeing fewer insects in terms of overall numbers than we did back in 1970, perhaps half as many. So it depends on which study you look at and which researcher you follow. But there are several studies that are documenting insects in general which are food sources for all these other animals that we may find a little bit more endearing. Those populations are going down, and it's in large part due to us.

MATT SINNOTT: And so as we go into this summer, people should follow the rule if you leave the honeybees alone, they will leave you alone.

JOHN RAFFERTY: Absolutely.

MATT SINNOTT: Don't kill them. Let them do their thing. They're helping us out.

JOHN RAFFERTY: Create habitat for them in your backyard. Native plants do well. And lobby your elected representatives to impose stricter controls on pesticides.

MATT SINNOTT: Great. Great info that you share today, John. Thank you so much. And thank you again for talking with us. I think we touched on some other topics that could be future episodes, so I hope that you will join us again.

JOHN RAFFERTY: Absolutely, Matt. Any time.

MATT SINNOTT: Thanks, John.

JOHN RAFFERTY: You're Welcome.
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