It’s (probably) not a murder hornet.

So, Vespa mandarinia still continues to capture the imagination of people across the US.

The Washington Department of Agriculture recently confirmed the first sighting in 2021. So, right now seems like a good time to give an update.

Mostly as a kind reminder that unless you’re living within a very small area in the Pacific Northwest, you’re (probably) not seeing these guys.

The first thing to remember is that locality is a huge part of insect identification. You can ID entire families simply by knowing what continent, or even country, they were found in.

So with that in mind, here’s a (very rough) map of all the sightings we’re aware of.

I want to point out that all of these sightings are within a half hour’s drive of one another. Most folks live about that distance away from their workplace. It’s a very narrow geographical area…and if you’re living outside of it, they’re just not there.

Another thing I felt would be helpful is a side-by-side comparison of the “murder hornet” versus the Cicada Killer. That’s the wasp in the picture above, and it’s by far and away the most common insect confused for the “murder hornet”.

Vespa mandarinia, left, courtesy of Karla Salp via University of Maryland. Cicada killer right, courtesy of University of Florida. Pictures not to scale.

It makes sense that these two species would be confused, because Cicada killers are some of the largest wasps in the US. They also kind of look like hornets, and the only details which separate them are the kinds of things you’d have to be really close to see. Things like individual plates, and wing venation (the hornet has a really long cell in it’s wing that is unique to its family, for instance).

Once you do a side-by-side, the two species look very different. The Cicada killer is much darker and has very different patterning. Instead of having black and yellow stripes (the hornet looks much more yellow when living), it’s mostly black with some yellow splotches.

So that patterning on the butt is really the tell-tale sign you’re not dealing with a murder hornet.

The University of Maryland has great pictures of Vespa mandarinia, and I’d reccomend you check them out!

A Note From Joe

I’ve made no bones of the fact that I’m not a fan of the name “murder hornet”, because it’s a sensationalistic name which really only serves to villify these guys. You definitely shouldn’t pick them up, but they’re not roving the countryside looking for people to kill. In fact, the deadliest stinging insect is the honeybee.

I am less in favor of using the name “Asian Giant Hornet” or AGH. A few of our colleagues have posted messages like the one above, which indicates that anti-Asian sentiment has kind of spread over to cover the “murder hornet”. There’s a whole history of genocidal governments tying ethnic groups to pests, and I’ve decided that AGH is no longer an appropriate common name if it’s stoking anti-Asian sentiment.

So I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Neither name is a great name, but I’ll be calling them “murder hornets” from now on…but only as a common name when no other option is avaliable. I’ll try to use the scientific name as much as possible (although it still does have similar issues to AGH, but that’s another discussion).

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