Tom Nicholson is a freelance journalist living near Nanaimo, B.C.
Like the fearsome insects themselves, reports of an imminent North American invasion by Asian “murder hornets” seized our collective imagination this past week. And once again, science took it on the chin from hysteria. Could they reach Alaska? Ontario? The Ozarks? (Experts decreed it unlikely.)
Officials in the state of Maine reminded people crossly that itch-inducing caterpillars posed a greater threat. A University of California entomology professor advised people to “have a glass of wine and relax because it’s a non-issue.” But red states were not buying it. Texas set up a Murder Hornet Task Force. A YouTube video resurfaced of Coyote Peterson, the “King of Sting," filming himself getting stung by an Asian giant hornet and writhing in (presumably unfeigned) agony.
Here are the facts. The two-inch predators established a beachhead on Vancouver Island last summer; by Christmas, several dead hornets had also been discovered across the Strait of Georgia, in Blaine, Wash. This spring, we have been canvassed by state and provincial governments to watch for new nests; none have yet been found.
But if the Pacific skyline remains clear for now, you could be forgiven for sensing menace in flight. Dread has overwhelmed us this spring, with COVID-19 in the vanguard, destroying lives and livelihoods with brutal impartiality. So perhaps it was inevitable that “murder hornets” should gain traction because they intuitively belonged to the new landscape, as yet another blight sent to punish the human race. They kill dozens of people every year; they prey on the already endangered honeybee; and once established in their invisible underground nests, they are difficult to eradicate. They, too, are part of the hostile new normal.
In fairness, anxiety comes readily to our species, especially when we’re in the midst of a calamity. Yeats’s The Second Coming may have been a product of the First World War, but we are still morbidly fascinated by his “rough beast ... moving its slow thighs.” Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was based on his experiences in the Philippines in the Second World War, but its most enduringly relatable moment was when a patrol ended after the soldiers disturbed a hornet’s nest. “War is about disproportions,” Mr. Mailer said. “We were ready to lose our lives but we weren’t up to getting stung by a hornet.”
And so it goes with the murder hornets: We can be stoic about Depression-era unemployment and thousands of casualties, but lose our cool over a few bugs.
In happier times – in February, 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic hove into sight – a B.C. beekeeper named Conrad Bérubé jauntily described how he had disposed of that first Nanaimo “murder hornet” nest the previous summer. Writing for the American Bee Journal (his article was subtitled “the Zom-Bee Apocalypse”), he revealed that he had been stung seven times “while making an unsuccessful attempt to vacuum hornets at the nest entrance using a battery-operated handi-vac (the hornets proved too large to fit through the nozzle).” After enjoying greater success with a fire extinguisher, and managing to extract the nest’s 200 neutralized occupants, Mr. Bérubé lamented that he hadn’t thought to gobble up some of the 400 “immatures” while he was about it. “Unfortunately, we disposed of the larvae before it occurred to me to do up a pupal sauté or such.”
Mr. Bérubé reminds us of a more sensible approach to minor threats – the Falstaffian, I mean, not the culinary. Amid such tragedy and disruption, people start to see even minor misfortunes as celestial punishments (in the same way that if one has a hammer, one tends to look for nails). Sure, hornets can be horrifying – I vividly remember removing a rock from a groundhog hole on our farm and then realizing with a shriek that it was a nest of wasps. But I can also understand why my family found humour in the incident, as I did a Carl Lewis across the fields with a vespine cloud trailing behind me.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect that people wouldn’t be curious about a carnivorous hornet the size of your thumb, that can fly faster than a human can run and will roam up to almost 100 kilometres in search of food. Especially if it might be coming soon to a nest near you. But while I wouldn’t deny the King of Sting the satisfaction of injuring himself for his trade, I think on balance I’d rather watch Mr. Bérubé chowing down on his pupal sauté “or such.” At least it would feel like a win for the good guys.
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