What? You didn’t think we’d write about the murder hornets? Come on, how can we not write about the murder hornets? After all, let’s look at our other choices today: We could write about politicians, or we could write about the pandemic. Or we could write about the murder hornets. Some choices are pretty easy, now aren’t they?
Unless you’ve been holed up in a cabin out in the woods without an internet connection, trying to ride out the coronavirus, you’ve presumably heard of the so-called “murder hornets.” They are more properly known as Asian giant hornets, or, if you really want to get technical, Vespa mandarinia. As insects go, these are bad ones. Very bad. The giant part? They’re more than 2 inches long, perhaps not as big as the hornet mascot statue at the University of Lynchburg, but bigger than we like insects of any kind to be. And, yes, they really can kill people. The New York Times says they kill about 50 people each year in Japan. And now they’re here. By here, we mean a long way from here, but still too close for comfort. They were first spotted at two locations in British Columbia last fall. Then two were sighted across the border in Washington state. Murder hornets, like viruses and lots of other things, don’t respect political boundaries. They also don’t respect much of anything else. They’ll show up at a honeybee hive and, in a matter of hours, decapitate every bee in sight, just for the sheer sport of it all. Then they eat the larvae and pupae — so in bee terms, they kill the adults and eat the infants. This is their nature. Can we all agree these murder hornets are bad? Yes, we can. See — look at that — America’s not as polarized as we sometimes think it is. We have both liberals and conservatives nodding in agreement. That probably won’t happen again anytime soon, so enjoy the moment while you can.
For those of you keeping track of this year’s horrors, the murder hornets are just one more sign that Somebody is very, very, very angry with us. Burning Australia to a crisp wasn’t enough to get our attention. Plague and pestilence wasn’t enough, either. Unleash the murder hornets! What can we learn from all this? Well, sometimes the third planet isn’t quite the paradise that it looks like in the travel brochures. But here are some others:
1. The world is inter-connected. That’s not just some hoary, feel-good sentiment. It’s the truth. How did the murder hornets get here? Probably on a cargo ship. So, yes, you can blame global trade if you want. Before anyone rushes to build a wall along the Pacific, keep in mind that invasive species aren’t solely a product of contemporary globalism. The flu pandemic of 1918 — we’ve frequently compared it to today’s COVID-19 pandemic — also swept the planet, and there was a lot less global trade then. Yes, a virus technically isn’t a species, but the same principle applies. There was even less global trade in 1347, but the Black Death swept Europe anyway. That plague probably originated in China and was carried along the Silk Road by fleas riding (and feasting) on black rats. Still, our modern economy with ships and planes criss-crossing the planet makes invasive species more likely. So does climate change, which spurs critters to migrate. An “invasion ecologist” — yes, that’s a real term — at McGill University in Montreal predicted last year we’re likely to see anywhere from a threefold to 20-fold increase in invasive species over the next 30 years. Great.
2. Invasive species are a big deal. Just as we have a whole Defense Department to protect us against invading armies, there are whole government agencies set up to deal with invading plants and critters. Back in 1999, President Bill Clinton set up the National Invasive Species Council to coordinate all the 14 different federal departments and agencies that are involved. There are all sorts of protocols for travelers — such as those forms you have to fill out asking if you’re been on a farm lately or are bringing back any agricultural products. There are protocols for cargo ships, too, but no system is foolproof. A murder hornet who has been hanging out on a freighter from Asia can just fly off into a new continent without going through customs. Agriculture officials are sort of like health department officials — we don’t pay much attention to them until we really need them. But they’re always there. The Virginia Department of Health has 55 different diseases that it officially investigates — we just don’t hear much about them because they don’t cause pandemics, although some could if they’re not dealt with quickly. Likewise, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has people who investigate reports of invasive species. Each year, it conducts visual and trapping surveys looking for 15 specific invasive species. When fire ants were spotted in an outdoor planter at Roanoke’s Valley View Mall in 2006, agriculture officials showed up the same way the Marines do and with the same lethal intent. Right now the same sort of entomological seek-and-destroy mission is underway in the Northwest with the murder hornets — an international effort to hunt down these foreign invaders and terminate them with extreme prejudice before they can gain a foothold on the continent. State agricultural officials also have the power to impose something we’ve heard used in a different context lately — quarantines. In 2009, Virginia announced a quarantine of 11 localities in Hampton Roads. Want to bring in truckloads of dirt, or plants with root and soil attached, grass sod or soil-moving equipment? It’s got to be certified to be free of fire ants. Last year, the department extended that quarantine west to Mecklenburg County. Most of Virginia east of Smyth County is already under a quarantine to spot gypsy moths. There’s also a quarantine in Winchester and Frederick County for the spotted lanternfly.
3. Invasive species can reshape our world. Just look at how much the South is covered by kudzu or how the common rice black bug can reduce crop yields by 35%. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counts more than 4,300 “invasive” species running amok in the country. If you’re in the forest products industry, the emerald ash borer is bad news both for trees and for business. If you’re in agriculture and depend on bees to pollinate your crops — or maybe if you just like to eat — then murder hornets are bad news. We are again’ ’em. So there. We now return you to your regularly-scheduled pandemic.