BLAINE — Scientists have discovered the first nest of so-called “murder” hornets in the United States and planned to wipe it out Saturday to protect native honeybees, officials said.
After weeks of searching, officials said they found the nest of Asian giant hornets here, near the Canadian border.
Workers with the state Agriculture Department spent weeks searching, trapping and using dental floss to tie tracking devices to Asian giant hornets, which can deliver painful stings to people and spit venom but are a bigger threat to honeybees that farmers depend on to pollinate crops.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we did it,” agency spokeswoman Karla Salp said at a virtual news conference on Friday.
The nest is about the size of a basketball and contains an estimated 100 to 200 hornets, according to scientists, who suspect it has been there ever since the invasive insects began appearing late last year. It’s not known how they arrived in North America.
The nest was found after a worker for the state Agriculture Department caught two of the large hornets in a trap Wednesday. Two more living hornets were captured in another trap Thursday.
Using dental floss, “entomologists were able to attach radio trackers to three hornets, the second of which led them to the discovery of the nest” Thursday, agriculture officials said in a news release.
The nest was found inside the cavity of a tree on private property, the Agriculture Department said. Dozens of the hornets were seen buzzing in and out of the tree. It was about 300 yards from the traps. The owner is letting the state eradicate the nest and remove the tree.
The state plans to fill the cavity with foam and cover it with plastic wrap to prevent the hornets from escaping, said Sven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist for the Agriculture Department. Then a tube will be inserted to vacuum up the hornets trapped inside and deposit them in a collection chamber, he said.
Workers will wear thick protective suits that can prevent the 6-millimeter-long stingers of the hornets from hurting workers, Spichiger said. They also will wear face shields because the trapped hornets can spit a painful venom into their eyes.
“We extract them alive,” he said. “We will kill them.”
The tree will then be cut down to extract newborn hornets and learn if any queens have left the hive already, he said. Officials suspect more nests may be in the area, and they will keep searching.
“It’s still a very small population, and we are actively hunting them,” Spichiger said.
The world’s largest hornet is up to 2 inches long.
Despite their nickname and the hype around the insect that has stirred fears in an already bleak year, the hornets kill at most a few dozen people a year in Asian countries. Meanwhile, hornets, wasps and bees typically found in the U.S. kill an average of 62 people a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
The hornets are known for their painful stings. They will attack people and pets when threatened. People should be extremely cautious near them, agriculture officials said, and those who have allergic reactions to bee or wasp stings should never approach an Asian giant hornet.
The more common threat from Asian giant hornets is their devastating attacks on honeybees, which are already under siege from problems like mites, diseases, pesticides and loss of food. A small group of the hornets can kill an entire honeybee hive in hours. Farmers in the northwestern U.S. depend on honeybees to pollinate many crops, including raspberries and blueberries.
Scientists for the department have been searching for nests since the first Asian giant hornets were caught earlier this year. The first confirmed detection of the hornet in the U.S. was last December near Blaine, and the first hornet was trapped in July. Just over 20 have been caught so far, all in Whatcom County.
The invasive insect is normally found in China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Vietnam and other Asian countries. Officials have said it’s not known how it arrived in North America. Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia are the only places the hornets have been found on the continent.