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Murder hornet, Asian Giant Hornet
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Beekeeper says Asian giant hornets not biggest threat to local bees

An Asian giant hornet from Japan is held on a pin by an entomologist with the Washington state Dept. of Agriculture. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

They may have earned the nickname “murder hornets,” but a local beekeeper says Asian giant hornets aren’t nearly the biggest threat he’s worried about.

The large, orange-colored hornets, which are native to East Asia, were spotted in Whatcom County this spring, prompting fears about what a very predatory invasive species known for killing smaller bees could do to the local honey bee population. According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Asian giant hornets can “destroy a hive in a matter of hours,” and can go through a “slaughter phase” in which they decapitate honey bees.

Asian giant hornets have been seen in Blaine, Custer, and Bellingham, as well as just across the border in Langley, British Columbia.

WSDA has put up traps in Whatcom County to catch the hornets, find any potential colonies, and eradicate them from Washington.

Stop killing bees: You likely don’t have an Asian Giant Hornet

But Eric Balcom, a hobbyist beekeeper in Gig Harbor, said it’s an entirely different pest that is proving deadlier to Washington bees right now —  the Varroa mite.

“The biggest thing we fight against is Varroa mites, and our bees don’t have any natural defense to them,” he said.

Also known as the Varroa destructor, the mite, found nearly worldwide, is causing great losses for local beekeepers right now, as it infects bees with deadly viruses. Coronavirus may be the 2020 virus for humans to worry about, but for bees, it’s the Varroa viruses.

“I’m 1,000 times more worried about the viruses associated with the Varroa [than Asian giant hornets],” Balcom said.

He said these viruses can cause everything from wing deformities to diarrhea to paralysis.

Routinely-used chemicals also present dangers — Balcom lost over 100,000 bees a few years ago to a pesticide that was intended to ward off mosquitoes.

“Pesticides are a big deal — I actually lost hives two years in a row due to a BroadBand insecticide that a neighbor had as a free service,” Balcom said. “I lost three hives that year, so total I’ve lost five hives to that.”

He said each hive can have between 30,000 and 60,000 bees.

While Balcom said he does not under any circumstance want to write off the Asian giant hornet threat, he believes the state did well in setting up the traps so quickly, and is not concerned right now. Because the hornets won’t travel far from their nests, he said, he wouldn’t expect to see them “anywhere south of Mount Vernon.”

“Right now, it’s a waiting game — we’re just waiting to see if any of the traps up north catch anything,” he said. “And if there’s one or two colonies out there right now and they get them and destroy them, then we’re good — no worries at all.”

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