VANCOUVER -- When Jennifer Wong was cycling near the Richmond Olympic Oval, she came upon an unnervingly large, black and yellow insect.

She wondered: could it be the murder hornet, an invasive species British Columbians have warned to be on the lookout for?

After reviewing the photo Wong sent to CTV News Vancouver, B.C.'s top bee expert, Paul van Westendorp, says Wong shouldn't be worried. The insect she came across is likely a meadowhawk, a dragonfly-like insect that's harmless to humans, and beneficial because it eats insects like mosquitos.

Van Westendorp is the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture's chief apiarist, and he's leading the fight against the Asian giant hornet.

The enormous hornet, which preys on honey bees, was first found in Nanaimo in September 2019, when a group of beekeepers found and destroyed a nest.

But public awareness of the giant insect got a boost this spring when the New York Times reported on the hornet, dubbing it the "murder hornet." Coming in the midst of a global pandemic, the name struck a nerve among anxious North Americans.

Van Westendorp acknowledged that the hornet does kill "a few dozen" people every year in its native Japan — but he doesn't much care for the name "murder hornet."

"This character is on the top of the food chain of the insect world," he said. "There are no bugs that will try to eat the Asian giant hornet."

Honeybees in B.C. and Washington have no defences against the Asian giant hornet.

But in their current low numbers in B.C. and Washington state, they don't pose much threat to humans, van Westendorp said. In Japan, they cause fatalities when people unwittingly disturb their nests, which the hornets build on or under the ground.

Richmond insect
A Richmond resident wondered if this insect could be an Asian giant hornet, an invasive species British Columbians have been warned about. It's likely a meadowhawk, says a B.C. bee expert. (Submitted)

Van Westendorp confirmed that, like colleagues in Washington state, the B.C. government is planning to purchase special beekeeping suits from China. The Asian giant hornet's large stinger can pierce a normal beekeeping suit.

The Ministry of Agriculture has sent out several warnings about the hornet this year, warning residents who live along the B.C.-Washington border to report any sightings to the ministry. A hornet was spotted in White Rock in November.

It also sent photos of the hornet to help people identify it, as well as some examples of “lookalike” insects:

Lookalike insects

The Asian giant hornet is large compared to others. It has a "noticeably large" orange head and black eyes, a description from the provincial government reads.

Workers are about 3.5 centimetres long, while queens can be as large as five centimetres.

Their wingspan ranges from four to seven centimetres.

Additionally, they only nest in the ground, unlike other species.

The area where van Westendorp and his team expect to find the hornet has now expanded by about 15 kilometres, because this March another B.C. resident spotted an Asian giant hornet, this time in Langley.

Asian giant hornet
An example of the Asian giant hornet. (B.C. Government/handout)

It's unlikely the Asian giant hornet will travel farther inland, because the insect prefers a marine climate, van Westendorp said.

The province's effort to eradicate the invasive species will step up during the summer months, he said.

That's the time of year when sexually mature females leave their home nest to try to establish new nests. Developing to that life stage makes the hornets very hungry — and that's when they travel farther afield to seek high-protein food, van Westendorp explained.

If you come across an insect you think might be an Asian giant hornet, you can call the B.C. government's "bug hotline,” which is staffed with experts who can identify insects.

Send a photo of the insect you're wondering about to, or directly to van Westendorp at B.C. residents can also call the B.C. Invasive Species Council at 1-888-933-3722.

As for Wong, she's relieved her bug wasn't the murder hornet.

"That was scary to think of it potentially being in Richmond," she told CTV News Vancouver.