Fighting the murder hornet invasion … with dental floss

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First off, we need to talk about the murder hornet brand. Everything is calibrated perfectly for maximum impact. “Murder hornets.” Short, brutal in meaning and sound — even the cadence is spot on — memorable. Their international release was timed for a year full of misery and stress. Murder hornets introduced themselves to a world perfectly-primed to find out about them. As far as PR goes, Murder Hornet 2020 was executed to absolute perfection.

As far as the attempted murder hornet invasion of the United States … well, that one’s hit a snag, largely through the efforts of what I’m calling the Murder Hornet Rodeo Club. We’ll get to those good folks later, but I wanted to shout them out as early as possible.

Anyway. Murder hornets. What are they, beyond the brand? Vespa mandarinia is, frankly, a pretty rude insect. They’re gigantic wasps with a three-inch(?!) wingspan and a stinger which registers a Help, I Have Been Stabbed! on the getting-stung-by-a-giant-wasp pain scale. Oh, and they can also fire venom from their stingers without actually stinging. This way they can go for your eyes from range. Like I said, rude.

The really awful thing about the murder hornet is that the stingers aren’t even their primary murder weapon. It’s what they use against people, sure, but the murder hornets’ preferred target is other insects, against whom they use their jaws. They have a particular fondness for other wasps, which is of course fine, but they are also more than happy to munch straight through honeybee colonies. Which is bad.

Bee stings bounce straight off the murder hornets’ thick exoskeleton. And the hornets can retaliate with a bite capable of instantly killing a bee. When I said ‘munch’ above I was being literal — a few hornets can depopulate an entire colony of honeybees by decapitating them one-by-one in their jaws. Munch munch munch. Bees native to the murder hornets’ range have evolved an interesting defense strategy involving forming giant buzzballs and overheating the invaders, which is the only reason they’ve managed to stick around while the hornets are on the loose.

Bees which did not co-evolve with these hornets? They’re screwed. Which is why the aforementioned murder hornet invasion of the United States is such a big deal. American bees are critically important for agriculture and they’re having a hard enough time as it is, famously disappearing at an alarming rate without a bunch of hornets showing up and destroying their colonies.

While murder hornets have been a low-key storyline for much of 2020, when they made their first terrible appearance in Washington State, autumn is the time to get really concerned. That’s when they enter the ‘slaughter phase’ — that branding again! so good! — and go honeybee-hunting. And that is when our friends at the Murder Hornet Rodeo Club stepped in.

Destroying a nest of a couple hundred hornets, despite their size and weaponry, is not that difficult for the professionals. Finding it in the woods of northern Washington? Much more difficult. Basically, what they had to do was to capture hornets on solo scouting trips and then get them to lead the exterminators back to their nests via a tracking device. If that sounds like Darth Vader tracking the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, that’s because it’s exactly the same as Darth Vader tracking the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, but with murder hornets instead of Luke Skywalker.

How does one attach a tracking device to a hornet? With, uh, dental floss. A scout hornet is lured into a trap, incapacitated with some sort of insect sedative and tied up with dental floss. I wish I could tell you that the good folks of the Murder Hornet Rodeo Club (I think they’ve earned that name, what with roping murder hornets in order to hunt down and destroy them) used floss lassos or something, but either way you have to admit that this is a pretty badass thing to do:

Attaching a tracking device to a murder hornet

Washington State Department of Agriculture — CC BY-NC 2.0

It took some time to come up with this plan. The MHRC tried glue, which stuck the hornets’ wings together. They tried tape, which didn’t work at all. Dental floss was the obvious winner for getting the transmitter onto the hornet, but the first time they got one on and released a hornet back into the wild, the transponder lost signal well before getting to the nest.

But the MHRC kept on going — what choice did they have? — and eventually their floss/tracker plan bore fruit. A captured hornet led our heroes straight back to their nest, which was promptly exterminated. Now they have to figure out whether any young queens escaped the destruction, which sounds like an awfully convenient setup to a possible Murder Hornet sequel to me.

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