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So far, the year 2020 has turned out to be a bust, between the coronavirus, lockdown and quarantine, and a looming recession. As if we did not have enough to be concerned about, we now have new reports of a “murder hornet” entering the United States and setting up home here.
The description of the murder hornets is quite frightening. At one-and-a-half to two inches long, the murder hornet has huge jaws that decapitate honeybees and a nasty stinger that can sting a human repeatedly. The sting to a human has been compared to feeling like a hot nail is being driven into one’s skin. And protection from their stinger is useless since even the protective suits that beekeepers wear is no match for the murder hornet: their quarter-inch stingers can drill right through it.
If this is a vision that gives you nightmares, I am here to clarify some of the facts and cut through the drama around our new — and unwelcome — guests. It seems the murder hornet is not as much of a horror show as it seems.
The murder hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is a common insect in Asia, where it is called the “giant hornet.” It is thought that a single murder hornet queen entered Canada via a cargo container from Asia and started a colony that was discovered in 2019. After the colony was spotted, scientists and government officials made efforts to destroy the colony during the winter months when the hornet hibernates. No other colonies have been discovered in the U.S. or Canada so far. Two dead murder hornets were spotted and collected in the state of Washington in December 2019, which has raised the odds that another colony may exist, but so far, none have been discovered. However, even if another colony does exist, scientists are unsure if the murder hornet will spread beyond the Pacific Northwest. It seems that the murder hornet cannot take extreme heat or cold weather. It has adapted to live in a very temperate climate, one that is common in the Pacific Northwest, but it is unlikely to thrive in other climates in North America. Therefore, the murder hornet is not likely to become a full-scale invasion.
What about the dangers to humans? Although the murder hornet can pack a nasty sting, their sting poses no more of a danger to humans than a honeybee sting. More people in the U.S. die from honeybee stings than people in Japan die from the murder hornet’s sting. The sting is painful, but the pain tends to subside in a few days. People who are allergic to bee stings should seek medical treatment if they are stung. Most importantly, it should be noted that murder hornets tend to keep to themselves and do not bother humans unless provoked. They will defend their hives from an attack like any social insect, but they are no more prone to attacking humans than any other hive insect.
The bigger concern is how the murder hornet will affect honeybee colonies if they take hold in the Pacific Northwest. The European honeybee, which is known for its very docile and defenseless nature, is the main bee used to pollinate crops in North America. Whereas other species of bees, particularly those in Asia that live among the murder hornet, will often kill a hornet if it enters their hive, the European Honeybee has no inclination. They are therefore vulnerable to having their hives overtaken by murder hornets that will decapitate them and keep them as a food source, so it is imperative that beekeepers use traps to protect their honeybee colonies from the hornets. Beekeepers are also taking steps to keep more defensive species of honeybees among their colonies who will defend their hives against murder hornets if they do invade the colony.
The saga of the murder hornet will continue . . .
This post was contributed by Annette Carr, Librarian at the School of Health Sciences at Bay Shore