In this Dec. 30, 2019 photo, the stinger of a dead Asian giant hornet is photographed in a lab in Olympia. (Karla Salp/Washington State Department of Agriculture via AP)

In this Dec. 30, 2019 photo, the stinger of a dead Asian giant hornet is photographed in a lab in Olympia. (Karla Salp/Washington State Department of Agriculture via AP)

‘Attack of the Murder Hornets’: The race to find bee killers

A new documentary follows the rush to find and fight off an unwanted invader in Whatcom County.

By Kie Relyea / The Bellingham Herald

A new documentary streaming on discovery+ follows Washington state scientists and beekeepers as they rush to find and fight off an unwanted invader in Whatcom County.

The work of filmmaker Michael Paul Stephenson, “Attack of the Murder Hornets” uses thematic elements found in monster movies — creepy music, a race against time, a big villain — down to a poster that shows an Asian giant hornet flying toward the viewer with its large mandibles opening.

The action of the nearly 90-minute documentary that debuted Saturday, Feb. 20, unfolds in rural Whatcom County, where the first Asian hornet in the U.S. and Washington state was discovered in December 2019 and the first nest was destroyed, near Blaine, in October 2020. All that against the backdrop of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

The hornets are popularly known as “murder hornets,” because of a New York Times article.

“My aim from the outset was to tell a character-driven story about beekeepers and scientists who have to band together as a team to protect their community from this invasive species,” Stephenson said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

What interests him most, he said, is who are the characters, why do we want to root for them and what’s at stake? The scary movie approach? Well, that’s meant to entertain in order to reach the audience, according to Stephenson.

“I think that’s one of the greatest opportunities through documentary and nonfiction storytelling right now is if it’s told the right way, you can really reach an audience,” he said.

Stephenson and a small crew spent about six weeks in Washington state last fall to tell that story, starting to film, just by chance, the day before Chris Looney, entomologist for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, caught the first live Asian giant hornet in the U.S., according to a WSDA news release.

They were there filming, too, when the department’s scientists found and destroyed the first Asian giant hornet nest in late October.

“This film is an opportunity to educate people in an entertaining way about the work that is being done to prevent Asian giant hornets from establishing in the Pacific Northwest,” said Sven Spichiger, WSDA managing entomologist, in a news release.

“Viewers will see some great shots of these hornets and the film does a good job showing how important the partnership between government agencies and the public has been to this effort,” said Spichiger, who is featured in the documentary.

What’s at stake

Up to 2 inches long, the Asian giant hornet, or Vespa mandarinia, is the world’s largest hornet species. They are identifiable by their large yellow/orange heads.

The hornets are known for their painful stings. They will attack people and pets when threatened. People should be extremely cautious near them, state agriculture officials have said, and those who have allergic reactions to bee or wasp stings should never approach an Asian giant hornet.

The hornets’ native range is Asia. They also are known as the Japanese hornet, yak-killer hornet and the giant sparrow bee.

In North America, Asian giant hornets are feared for the threat they pose to honeybees and, by extension, the valuable crops in Washington state that the bees pollinate, including blueberry and other cane crops in the region that includes Whatcom County.

They also prey on local pollinators such as wasps, posing a threat to the local ecosystem.

When Asian giant hornets are in their slaughter phase, which they enter in the fall, they mark a honeybee hive, attack it, use their powerful jaws to decapitate the bees, and take the bees’ young to feed their own. A few hornets can kill 30,000 honeybees and take out a hive within hours, and managed honeybees here have no defense against them because the hornets are an invasive species that the bees haven’t had a chance to evolve with.

The hornets usually nest in the ground, although the nest that was found and destroyed near Blaine was in the cavity of an alder tree.

It’s not known how the Asian giant hornet found its way to Whatcom County.

A colony’s slaughter

The first known Asian giant hornet sighting in Whatcom County, and by extension the state and the U.S., occurred in December 2019 when a Blaine area resident found a dead one on his porch when he took his dog out for a walk.

But a month before and two miles away, it was Custer resident Ted McFall who was the first to see what they were capable of when he found 60,000 of his honeybees dead — their heads decapitated and the young taken from their hives.

That was November 2019. The third-generation beekeeper was horrified and puzzled, at first, until he learned the cause.

“I remember like it was yesterday,” McFall said of the colony’s slaughter. “I didn’t know it was going to be some creature from the other side of the world.”

McFall belongs to the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association, whose members were part of a public effort to set up hundreds of traps in Whatcom County and around the state to capture a live hornet, track it back to its nest, and destroy the colony to prevent the invasive species from taking hold in the Pacific Northwest.

“We’re only interested in eradicating them,” McFall said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald. “At the end of the day, they cannot be here.”

Ruthie Danielsen, a beekeeper and member of the Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association, also is featured in the documentary.

To her, the documentary provides another chance to reach people who don’t yet know about Asian giant hornets.

“There are lots of people who are not aware of this risk to our community and to North America. Everything we can do to keep the word out in front of folks is great,” Danielsen said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

After all, the threat didn’t end with the destruction of one nest.

State agriculture officials believe there could be three more nests in Whatcom County.

“It’s likely that we have additional nests from last year that will have produced viable queens. So we will need to keep trapping in 2021 for sure. And probably 2022,” said Danielsen, who was active in efforts to trap the hornets and get the word out to other beekeepers as well as the public.

Asian giant hornet queens, who emerge in spring after over-wintering, are the ones that set up colonies.

The more people we can again get looking for them — not necessarily trapping but looking for them and understanding what they look like — the better chance of eradicating the hornets, Danielsen said.

“This is going to be happening for the next few years,” she said.

As for Stephenson, his wish is for viewers to tap into the documentary’s wider themes while enjoying themselves.

“I hope it creates conversation around the Washington State Department of Agriculture, government workers and this battle against this invasive species. I hope it also gets people to consider the ecological impacts that human beings have in the world today,” he said.

“I hope that it gets people considering how important bees are to our agriculture and the role that bees and pollination play in our food system,” Stephenson added.

On the web

“Attack of the Murder Hornets” can be found on discovery+ at discoveryplus.com. It is a subscriber streaming service and plans start at $4.99 a month.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture website about Asian giant hornets is at agr.wa.gov/hornets.

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