Chicago, IL

That large, scary wasp you see is most likely not a murder hornet

Jennifer Geer

Illinois is home to some large wasps, but so far, Asian giant hornets have not been found outside of Washington state.

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Asian giant hornet(Washington State Department of Agriculture)

Unless you're an expert, it's easy to mistake Illinois' large wasps and hornets for invasive Asian giant hornets. But for now, the Asian species, known as murder hornets, have only been found in the Pacific Northwest.

Asian giant hornets are discovered in the U.S.

Last summer, in the middle of a global pandemic, the news came in that an invasive species of giant hornets had emerged in the U.S. The Asian giant hornet, otherwise known as the murder hornet, was first found along the U.S.-Canadian border in 2019. But the summer of 2020 is when the murder hornet captured the attention of the country.

And now, they're back.

The first Asian giant hornet of the season was recently found in a town north of Seattle. The hornet was dead and withered, and experts believe it may have been there since the previous season but not discovered until now.

Managing entomologist with the Washington state agriculture department, Sven Spichiger, said in a press conference, "Basically the only information we have is that a slightly dried out, dead specimen was collected off of a lawn in Marysville."

The hornets typically emerge in July, so it's still early for them. But when they do start coming out of their hibernation, Washington state officials will be ready for them this year. Agriculture officials are setting murder hornet traps around the area the hornet was discovered and alerting the public to do the same.

Have any murder hornets been found in Illinois?

No, scientists believe if the hornets spread in the U.S., it will be along the West Coast. The good news is, the hornets are slow movers. They spread at a rate of around 60 miles per year. Since Chicago is over 2,000 miles away from Seattle (near the recent sighting), that gives Illinois about 30 years or more before they could make their way to this part of the country.

The scientific model shows over the next ten years the hornets could spread as far north as Glacier Bay in Alaska and as far south as northern California.

Do murder hornets really kill people?

Yes, they are vicious killers, but it's honeybees they're after. Although with their long stingers and toxic venom, they can be deadly to humans. But they aren't seeking out humans to attack them.

Hornets are usually solitary hunters, but these hornets work together to annihilate entire bee colonies.

Their attacks on honeybees sound like something out of a horror flick. The hornets infiltrate hives and rip the heads off of the bees.

And this is why U.S. officials are rushing to eradicate the invasive species before it takes a foothold in the U.S. and decimates bee colonies.

However, just like most bees and wasps, the hornet will only attack humans when disturbed. Although, the unwitting person that accidentally bumps into a murder hornet could be in for a painful attack.

A giant hornet's sting is reported as much more severe and painful than the usual wasp or bee sting. And people that are allergic to the sting of bees and wasps can suffer an anaphylactic reaction that may cause death when stung by the giant hornet. But even if you aren't allergic, an attack from a swarm of murder hornets could be deadly.

How can I tell the difference between an Asian giant hornet and a large wasp?

According to Ken Johnson, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, large wasps are often mistaken for Asian murder hornets. But you can tell the difference by looking at their sizes and color markings.

There are three types of wasps commonly found in Illinois that are sometimes mistaken for the Asian hornet: European hornets, cicada killers, and boldfaced hornets.

Here's how to tell the difference between them:

Asian giant hornets are 1.5 to 1.75 inches long. They are big and bulky with yellow to orange heads and orange and black stripes.

European hornets are smaller. They are only about one inch long and are yellow and brown. Unlike other bees and wasps, European hornets are active at night.

Cicada killers are large. They can reach up to 1.5 inches long. Due to their size, they are the species the most often misidentified as murder hornets. But cicada killers are not aggressive (unless you are a cicada), and they won't typically sting unless stepped on or handled. They are identified by their black bodies, yellow markings, and orangish-red legs and wings.

Bold-faced hornets are much smaller than giant hornets, only about .5 to .8 inches long. They have a black body with white head markings. They live socially in colonies. Bold-faced hornets typically only sting to defend their nests.

Though the wasps and hornets native to Illinois can seem intimidating, Johnson says they are beneficial insects. Like bees, wasps are pollinators, helping to sustain ecosystems. They are also predators to many pest insects.

For more information see Asian Giant Hornets: Your Questions Answered from the Home, Yard & Garden Pest Newsletter of the University of Illinois.

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Jennifer covers lifestyle content and local news for the Chicago area.

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