If you’ve been itching to get back to the outside world, two words might make you think again: murder hornets. For the first time, these gigantic, invasive hornets have been spotted in the U.S., which could be a problem for both humans and honeybees.

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The Washington State Department of Agriculture verified four sightings of Vespa mandarinia — the official name for the Asian giant hornet — last December. But after The New York Times recently reported on them, murder hornets have moved into the limelight.

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The black-and-yellow hornets measure up to two inches long and have bulging eyes. “They’re like something out of a monster cartoon with this huge yellow-orange face,” said Susan Cobey, bee breeder at Washington State University’s (WSU) Department of Entomology.

“It’s a shockingly large hornet,” Todd Murray, WSU Extension entomologist and invasive species specialist, said. “It’s a health hazard, and more importantly, a significant predator of honeybees.”

The hornets are native to the forests and mountains of eastern and southeast Asia, where they feast on large insects. One of their favorite foods is the European honeybee. Scientists in Washington worry that if the hornets spread, they could decimate the state’s honeybees, which farmers rely on to pollinate apple and cherry crops. Invasive species like murder hornets can permanently alter an ecosystem.

“Just like that, it’s forever different,” Murray said. “We need to teach people how to recognize and identify this hornet while populations are small, so that we can eradicate it while we still have a chance.” WSU and the state agriculture department are working with beekeepers and volunteers to locate the enormous hornets before they become too active again. April is the month when queens usually emerge from hibernation, so the hornets are just getting started. Obviously, the consequences will be devastating if these creatures manage to spread across the country.

While humans are not the hornets’ typical target, the hornets will attack anything if they feel threatened. When a group of hornets attack, they can inject as much venom as a snake bite. Murder hornets kill up to 50 people in Japan every year.

+ Washington State University

Image via LiCheng Shih