Soon after a New York Times story ran in May about reports in the Pacific Northwest of Asian giant hornets — dubbed “murder hornets” in the story — Bucknell University Professor Elizabeth Capaldi’s phone literally started to buzz. A biology and animal behavior professor who studies bees, Capaldi received messages for weeks from Pennsylvanians with photos of potential “murder hornets” in their backyards.
Capaldi eased their fears, telling them that the hornets in their photos were actually European giant hornets, which have been living in the northeastern U.S. since the early 1900s. While also invasive and large — a little more than half the size of the Asian giant hornet, which can grow to two inches — and similar in color, European giant hornets only occasionally come into contact with people as they scrape on wooden houses or decks, collecting wood pulp for their nests. They’ve largely gone unnoticed for years — that is, until images of the terrifying “murder hornet” first burst on the scene and into our minds.
By August, Capaldi expects her messages to be buzzing again, once the Eastern cicada killer wasps, which can also grow up to two inches in length and have been living in our midst for centuries, emerge.
“The biggest wasp in our area is the cicada killer. It’s big [up to two inches] and also black and yellow, similar to the Asian giant hornet,” says Capaldi, co-author of the book Why do Bees Buzz? Fascinating Answers to Questions about Bees (Rutgers University Press, 2010). “It only flies for two to three weeks in August, and only comes out when the cicadas appear.”
According to Capaldi, cicada killers paralyze cicadas with their sting, and are big enough to then carry them back to their underground nests. Once there, the wasps lay their eggs on top of the cicadas, which will serve as fresh food for the new grubs. While they could do some damage to humans with their sting, they’re generally not interested in you, unless you get in the way of the cicadas. “They are highly unlikely to sting a person, even when in the vicinity of their underground nests,” Capaldi says. “They are solitary nesters, but individual wasps do tend to clump together, sometimes in garden beds or grassy lawns.”
Their annual appearance will no doubt strike fear in Pennsylvanians, who have become frighteningly fascinated by harmful hornets in recent months.
“People who haven’t paid attention to anything entomological before are now noticing any large yellow jackets because of the ‘murder hornets” news coverage” Capaldi says. “Unfortunately, that’s taking advantage of people’s fears [because of the frightening nickname]. For one of the few times during the pandemic, people are paying attention to something other than the virus.”
As for the Asian giant hornet, don’t expect to see murder hornets in these parts anytime soon. So instead of looking for them, Capaldi suggests Pennsylvanians look for spotted lanternflies, which have been reported in the state and could cause major crop damage. Helping to stop their spread would be a more important action for the nascent entomologist or concerned citizen.
“They will create devastation for agriculture,” Capaldi says. “There are already invasive animals in our midst and there are insects we should be informed about and interested in before we focus on frightening hornets from the other coast.”