VANCOUVER -- With a terrifying new moniker, social media is abuzz with tales of the "murder hornet," a flying insect that rips bees apart and "carries a painful, sometimes lethal sting," according to entomologists at Washington State University.

The Asian giant hornet has been spotted for the first time in Washington State, setting off a wave of media coverage that has resonated with the "end times" feeling of the spring of 2020.

But Asian giant hornets have been in British Columbia for some time, with the first hornets spotted near Nanaimo in August 2019. The provincial government has warned that they'll likely return this spring and summer after they wake up from winter nesting.

Two Asian giant hornets were discovered near Blaine, Wash., in December, and one was found in White Rock, B.C., in November.

"These findings indicate a probability that nesting hornets are overwintering in the area," the Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement March 20.

Residents who live along the B.C.-Washington border could be the first to spot the Asian giant hornet this year. The hornet prefers wooded areas, which proliferate along the border, so the Ministry of Agriculture has warned residents who live near Zero Avenue, from Surrey to Aldergrove, to be on the lookout for the hornets and to report any sightings to the Invasive Species Council of B.C. by calling 1-888-933-3722 or filling out an online form.

The hornets make their nests in the ground and not in trees or buildings. If people stumble upon a nest, officials recommend that they avoid it and leave the area immediately.

A provincial apiculturist also set up traps in the area to catch hornets.

The hornet's stinger can pierce through normal beekeepers' suits, according to Washington State University. In fact, the Washington State Department of Agriculture has ordered special suits from China to help tackle the creatures.

WSU researchers describe their stings as "big and painful, with a potent neurotoxin" and caution they can even be lethal, warning "multiple stings can kill humans, even if they are not allergic." They also warn the public not to attempt to deal with the hornets themselves.

Despite this terrifying description, B.C.'s Ministry of Agriculture says the hornets are not usually interested in humans, pets or livestock. Rather, they eat honeybees — a significant concern since pollinating bee populations are already struggling.

But if the hornets' nests are disturbed, "they will attack with painful stings, which can be hazardous to people’s health," according to the ministry.

The B.C. Ministry of Agriculture describes Asian giant hornets as "large compared to other hornets, with noticeably large orange heads and black eyes." Worker hornets are around 3.5 centimetres in length, while queens can be up to four cm to five cm in length, with a wingspan of four cm to seven cm.

With files from CTV News Vancouver Island's Adam Chan