By KIRSTEN D. LEVINGSTON
For Montclair Local
Kirsten D. Levingston moved to Montclair in 2008. She works in the city and writes on the
side. In “Welcome to Montclair” she explores the quirks of this special town. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Huffington Post and Baristanet.
News of “murder hornets” in North America — in Washington state and British Columbia, to be exact — has captured my attention. For starters, whose head doesn’t turn when you learn that something called a “murder hornet” exists? And wouldn’t a plague of insects fit perfectly with how 2020 is shaping up so far?
Second, though these critters may pose a threat to other insects, there is little evidence that they bother people unless people bother them, in which case they are capable of repeatedly piercing skin (and beekeeper suits). People stung by the hornet have described it as feeling like “being stabbed with a hot metal pin.”
Despite the minimal threat to humans, the ridiculously sensationalized and overhyped news coverage is perversely welcome amid a pandemic that is destroying lives, livelihoods, and the global economy.
The hornet’s official name is Vespa mandarinia, an apt descriptor for an orange-striped insect that flies at speeds up to 25 miles per hour. The world’s largest hornet, adult V. mandarinia are 2 inches long, the size of those baby carrots you may be chomping on incessantly these days. Though native to Japan and other Asian countries, last year a V. mandarinia showed up in Washington state, likely after hitching a ride on the wrong vessel.
Might they turn up one day in Montclair?
Our town could be an attractive landing spot for V. mandarinia, what with our large trees, expansive gardens, and New Jersey’s adoration of bees. The honeybee, V-man’s favorite food group, was designated the official state insect in 1974 after a group of students from the Sunnybrae School in Hamilton Township created buzz around the idea.
Currently Montclair is home to thriving communities of Vespa and Vespula vulgaris — scientific speak for hornets and wasps. A couple of years ago I discovered a Mini-Cooper-sized hornets’ nest in a tree in my yard.
Which seemed like a big deal until I saw one the size of a semi-truck hanging from a tree at Anderson Park — during the annual crafts show no less. If murder hornets did show in Montclair, they’d likely make a beeline to that show (assuming it happens this summer), reasoning that where there are honey vendors, there must be honey beehives.
V-men get their “murder hornet” nickname for what they do in those beehives.
As is the case in many species, among V. mandarinia the females do most of the work. Between summer and fall the ladies get together to carry out mass attacks on nests of other social insects, notably honeybee colonies. When a gal targets a beehive, she places a pheromonal mark on it that says, “Sisters, come help me get the goodies here.” (That’s a quote from Scientific American!) Her ride-or-dies show up to join in the slaughter.
Meanwhile the worker bees inside the hive also whiff the scent and get into formation, preparing for attack.
This next part is where it gets real. Read on only if you can handle the truth. When V. (wo)mandarinia enter a beehive, they use the large pinchers on the tips of their mouths to decapitate every bee in sight. After overtaking the hive, they load up the immature bees still encased in wax and the thoraxes of slaughtered worker bees, carting them off to feed their own babies.
Since honeybees from Asia have been dealing with V-(wo)man for generations, they have developed an ingenious defense strategy to protect their homes and families. If a lone V-(wo)man enters a hive, hundreds of worker bees jump on her and begin madly flapping their wing muscles.
Inside the massive buzz ball, the temperature rises to 115 degrees Fahrenheit and carbon dioxide levels increase, simultaneously baking and suffocating the hornet.
Might the simultaneous suffocation and warming of a creature by bees provide clues as to the etymology of the word “s-warming”? I’ll need to check that.
In Jersey our honeybees — which are from Europe, not Asia — don’t know this “s-warming” trick, and hopefully will never need to. Entomologists and everyday bee-lovers are working to stop V. mandarinia from taking off in the U.S. Hornet hunters in New Jersey, on the lookout for V-men, have sent specimens to insect experts at Rutgers, who thankfully have confirmed the bugs were not of the murder hornet variety.
“The species has not yet been detected this spring, and we do not expect them on the East Coast,” according to Dina M. Fonseca, director of the Center for Vector Biology in the Department of Entomology in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers-New Brunswick. For now, I will look out for reports on murder hornet sightings and release of the Netflix show “Real Murder Hornets of Seattle” – copping a new kind of buzz.