VANCOUVER -- Provincial officials are applauding sharp-eyed British Columbians for their discovery of yet another Asian giant hornet as dozens of ministry traps set throughout the Fraser Valley sit empty.

B.C.’s top bee expert revealed it was a queen hornet caught in Aldergrove on Saturday and said the Ministry of Agriculture wouldn’t have had a chance to study her – nor any of the other five insects discovered locally – had it not been for attentive citizens making hundreds of reports for possible sightings and trappings.

“We have relied very heavily on the observations and the reporting of the public at large and I cannot be thankful enough of the numerous people that have submitted photographs and reported sightings of these hornets,” said apiculturist Paul van Westendorp. “The crazy thing is with six specimens gathered over an entire year, the density is so low we don’t have a focal point. We don’t have a particular site that says, ‘(A nest) is likely to be here.’ It’s too diffuse, too widespread to give any sense as to where we should look, so hopefully next year we’ll be more successful.”

While the first of the large, orange, invasive insects to be found in North America was on Vancouver Island last year, recent sightings and trappings have been predominantly south of the border, suggesting the epicentre of the infestation is in Washington state’s Whatcom County. On Tuesday, county officials showed off the first nest to be discovered, the result of outfitting a trapped hornet with a tracking beacon following months of searching. The nest was more than two metres high in a tree hollow and more than 30 centimetres long. More than 500 of the vespa mandarinia were inside in various stages of development, including 76 queens prepared to emerge from the nest, mate and nestle into new crevices to hibernate over the winter, then establish near colonies of their own in the spring.

B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture has similar beacons to attach to the hornets, but they need to trap a live specimen first, and that hasn’t happened. They have up to 80 government-monitored traps in the Fraser Valley.

The risks and implications

Apiologists say the Asian giant hornets pose three major concerns:

  • The safety of people and pets: Unlike typical wasps and hornets that make their nests high above the ground, this species builds them in hollow tree trunks and empty cavities just underground, meaning people, pets, livestock and wild animals can inadvertently step on one or disrupt it, prompting an attack from the venomous creatures. Every year, the hornets kill about 20 people in Japan.
  • Survival of the honeybee population: Murder hornets like to eat honeybees, which they target in the late summer and early autumn when they’re looking for an animal protein source to feed to the next generation of hornets. They raid honeybee colonies, so beekeepers must build screens to defend against the big-headed insects to defend the fragile bee population, which farmers rely on to pollinate an array of crops.
  • Possible disruption of the ecosystem: Asian giant hornets aren’t just apex predators of the insect world, they’re an invasive species that has so far only been found in North America in B.C. and Washington state. Native species in our region don’t have any defences against them, meaning that if their population were to take hold here and begin to affect the local bee, wasp and hornet populations, there could be ripple effects throughout the ecosystem.

If you think you’ve spotted or trapped an Asian giant hornet and it’s still alive, experts suggest popping the jar or container into your fridge for half an hour so the insect falls asleep, then rolling it onto a counter to take a clear photo and submit it to the Invasive Species Council of BC without risking a painful sting.  

A controversial moniker that has served a purpose

Experts like van Westendorp cringe at the “murder hornet” nickname that’s foremost in people’s minds when discussing the startlingly big insect. But when CTV News Vancouver pointed out that the notoriety spurred by the moniker has resulted in it becoming a household name — with the awareness that brings credible reports — he acknowledged that it is an overall benefit to researchers and government officials trying to keep the invasive species in check.

“Everybody is alert and that is very wonderful and I hope that there is a positive side — not to only look at all these creatures, the negative ones and the ones that pose a danger, but also the little critters that make up our environment, that make our life and our world so much richer,” he said.

“There is a whole world out there of small lives that make it all work and if people have their eyes open, hopefully they can learn something and learn to appreciate it. We have extraordinarily human-centric attitudes towards the world and we think that we are so important, but most of the rest of the living world is utterly uninterested in us. So a hornet or a bee or a normal wasp is generally not interested unless you do something that causes it to be scared.”