Posted in: Food & Drink

Can The ‘Murder Hornet’ Destroy Our Food And Honey Supply?

As if we don’t have enough to worry about, now there’s a “murder hornet.” It’s the nickname for an Asian giant hornet, and according to breathless reporting about the insect, which was discovered in December in Blaine, Washington, it can wipe out entire honeybee hives in hours. And it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon.

That’s concerning to anyone who cares about our food supply, as honeybees are responsible for pollinating a long list of foods many of us take for granted at the grocery store.

But how much of the hype around the “murder hornet” is just that? We spoke to three bee experts about whether the insidious insect could kill enough honeybees to damage our food supply.

‘Murder hornets’ are a threat, but don’t buy all the hype

Honeybees are critical to the food supply, pollinating just about every plant-based food that we eat. “The most valuable thing honeybees do for us is pollinate our food,” said Danielle Downey, executive director of Project Apis m., a nonprofit that funds research to study honeybee health. “It’s estimated that one in every three bites of food we eat relies on bees for pollination.” Crops from almonds to cherries need bees in order to exist. That’s why a “murder hornet” that destroys beehives is so worrisome.

An entomologist displays a dead Asian giant hornet, a sample sent from Japan and brought in for research, on May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Washington.

An entomologist displays a dead Asian giant hornet, a sample sent from Japan and brought in for research, on May 7, 2020, in Blaine, Washington.

But this is not the first time there’s been a media maelstrom surrounding bees.

“When people called the African honeybee the ‘killer bee,’ it made it more difficult for beekeepers to do their work due to fear,” Downey told HuffPost. “They had to spend a lot of time assuring people that [their bees] weren’t killer bees. And with this hornet, the consequence of this fear is that people are killing bumblebees and other innocent pollinators because they’re afraid that they’re a hornet. Chances are very small that people are going to see this hornet anywhere in the U.S.”

Bee experts are not kept up at night thinking about the “murder hornet” ruining beehives in the U.S.

The Asian giant hornet “is near the bottom of the list of things we have to be concerned about,” said bee expert Timothy Lawrence, an associate professor at Washington State University Extension, Island County. “The biggest concern we have right now is the Varroa mite, which is not only consuming fat and tissue from the honeybees, but also delivering viruses, bacteria and pathogens that cause harm to the colonies.” Perhaps if the Varroa mite had a nickname like “murder mite” and a more menacing look, there’d be more articles written about it.

“It’s estimated that one in every three bites of food we eat relies on bees for pollination.”

Chris Hiatt, a commercial beekeeper and vice president of the American Honey Producers Association, agreed that Varroa mites are the honeybees’ predominant threat, along with a host of other issues, like pesticides that may be contributing to colony collapse and habitat loss caused by urbanization.

Hiatt noted that this doesn’t mean beekeepers are taking the giant hornet’s existence lightly. But he has good news for anyone concerned about honeybee health or the availability of fruit and honey in the supermarket. The Asian giant hornet “is so big and recognizable,” Hiatt said. “It’s easier to trap and control” compared to a mite.

Downey also shed some positive light on the hornet’s discovery in the U.S.

Good news: This guy isn't likely to disrupt the American food supply chain.

Good news: This guy isn’t likely to disrupt the American food supply chain.

“We’re hoping that with early detection of the hornet, it won’t be a regular problem here,” Downey said. “Even if it did become one, there’s so many pressures that bees face. On the triage of things you need to be concerned about for honeybee health, the hornet would be towards the bottom of the list. It’s so large, you can put an entrance excluder on a honeybee nest, and the hornet can’t get in and attack the bees. In terms of keeping it out of a colony, its large size makes that pretty straightforward.”

Help local pollinators, help yourself

Unless you’re a bee researcher or a beekeeper, you won’t be leading the fight against the giant hornet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help support honeybees.

If you have a green thumb, you could plant a “bee garden” to help local pollinators. But one of the best things you can do to ensure that bees stick around and continue to produce honey is to buy it locally. Local honey tastes better than any mass-produced product you can find in stores, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and won’t be modified with corn syrup or other additives. While honey is a perfect addition to tea or coffee, you can also use it in plenty of delicious recipes to keep things fun in the kitchen.

The local honey you buy also helps the beekeepers in your area sustain their business. “Beekeepers need that honey market to be strong so they have the funds to keep their bees healthy,” Downey said. Hiatt noted that with the increased cost of labor and hives dying every year, honey sales are critical. “If you buy USA only or local honey, that helps,” he said.