Numlock Sunday: Hannah Weinberger on giant hornets
By Walt Hickey
Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.
This week I spoke to Hannah Weinberger, who wrote “'Murder hornet' gets new, more ethical, name” for Crosscut. Here's what I wrote about it:
The Washington State Department of Agriculture has so far rolled out 1,150 traps over 310 square miles in their attempts to eradicate the northern giant hornet, an invasive species that first showed up in Washington state in 2019. That name is also new, and seeks to change the common name of Vespa mandarinia into something less loaded and contentious as the "murder hornet" or the "Asian giant hornet" it had previously been known as. The shift is the result of entomologists in the state government submitting new names to the Entomological Society of America for a species that, if all goes well, will no longer exist in North America.
We spoke about why names matter, especially when it comes to nonnative or “invasive” species, why the name “invasive species” has some issues in and of itself, and the process by which a nationally important bug gets a new name.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Hannah, you wrote a story all about a hornet species that has appeared in the American Northwest. There's been some sensational coverage of it. There's been some scientific coverage of it. Do you want to just back out and talk about what these hornets are, how they got there, and what the issue is?
Sure. And I love the trepidation in your voice when you introduce this topic; people are still trying to figure out what exactly we should be calling it right now.
A couple years ago in my neck of the woods out in Washington state, an insect came over that is originally from Asia. It's still pretty unclear exactly how it arrived, but there is a hornet species, scientific name Vespa mandarinia, that is the world's largest hornet species. In its native Asian range it likes to feed on Asian honeybees, and the honeybees in that part of the world have some resources to defend themselves.
But the concern, and the reason we're talking about this species at all right now, is that European honeybees — which are the species that we rely on for the bulk of the pollination needed for agricultural products of the U.S. — were not evolved to defend themselves against this hornet species, and they're pretty vulnerable.
When news came out, from predominantly The New York Times, in early 2020 about the fact that Washington state was trying to figure out how to keep this hornet species from establishing, they mentioned that this species was sometimes called a "murder hornet." That really took the public imagination fast, and there were quickly some responses from the entomology community about why this was a matter of concern, partially because when you hear “murder hornet,” that inspires fear, but also early 2020 was when the coronavirus really took hold in the U.S. and amid rising anti-Asian hate and xenophobia, having a species with origins in Asia that's also called a murder hornet doesn't really lend itself to great national relations.
There were people that I've spoken with in my reporting who said that some of their neighbors would blame them — these people are of Asian descent — for the hornet being here and for coronavirus. That's really why we're talking about this at all.
You wrote about it in your story, about an entomologist who was just like, we need to pump the brakes and figure out what exactly to call this in a proper way. Can you tell me about the process of naming an insect when the insect already has a name, but now that it's in a new place, it needs a new one?
Absolutely. I know for a lot of people, the idea of standardizing or making an official name is itself weird. No one can force you to call anything a specific thing, and especially not when it comes to insects. If you're not a scientist, there's really no one dictating what you call any insect.
However, there is a society of entomologists in the U.S. that tries to get ahead of some of these more publicly-important insects: It's the Entomological Society of America. The way that insects get their name is there is a committee in this organization which has about 5,800 people, that take in all requests from entomologists or members of the public who say, "I have a proposal for you to name this species. I think it is a matter of public concern, either because it's beautiful, like a monarch butterfly, or because it's perceived as a threat in some way, either to American agriculture or to forests or something of that nature."
Then this committee will look at the proposal, say, "Do you have a name you want us to use already?" They'll give some feedback, and then the general council of this organization will say, "Yeah, we check off, this insect should have a name that's not just its scientific name. The public should have a way to easily identify this insect in the public eye and be able to talk about it in the news and with their friends."
The names that usually rise to the top are names that help people identify the insect, something about its size or its sound. “Giant” really stands out for this hornet that we're talking about, which can be two inches long. But ultimately when this society comes out to say, "Hey, this is the new common name," common names are what we use amongst our friends, rather than in labs; there's no one who's going to tell you it's illegal to call it something else. You don't get in trouble for using a different name. They don't want us to use "Asian giant hornet" or "murder hornet" anymore, but it's not illegal to. The whole idea of standardizing names is really to help engagement efforts, to help people find information about these species if they want to know more. But there's really not that much you can do when it comes to enforcing using certain names if there's concern that a specific name will incite hate or violence towards insects or people alike.
It's also interesting, because the murder hornet framing is a little bit alarmist, to say the least. You've written a lot about how Washington has actually taken some concrete steps that could legitimately make this entire debate a little bit vestigial in the sense of there's a solid chance — it's going to be difficult — but they are working to eradicate the species from the environment now.
Yeah, absolutely. The state has spent, I think, at least $2 million on monitoring and eradication effort. As late as last week, my sources are still telling me that eradication is possible. They've removed just a handful of nests and detected a handful of nests over a couple hundred-mile range to date, and that's still promising. There's no guarantee they'll be able to keep the hornet from establishing, but for people concerned about agriculture and pollination, hope is still there.
But you're right in saying that the name is extremely alarmist, and it evolved because this hornet has a really powerful sting and a really upsetting way of eating bees. It likes to rip their heads off to eat them, and if you're someone who has honeybees and goes out to your hive in the morning and see just a pile of headless bees, that's an image that's going to stick with you.
It's pretty messed up.
People have been out indiscriminately murdering anything themselves that looks like an insect that could be this hornet, the northern giant hornet, including animals like the cicada killer wasp, which is pretty benign. But they're not part of our legal system. They can't murder. We can.
“Murder” does come with an allocation of intent that I think the northern giant hornet lacks.
Right. And that's one of the reasons that this name ultimately grew really popular within the Entomological Society of America. “Giant” obviously works, if you're out and you're trying to distinguish between something that is a tiny honeybee and a very large hornet, the one that's larger; “giant” works, that helps you distinguish it from other things in the environment.
The reason that “northern” was attached to the front is because if you look at the range of this hornet and other hornets that originate in Asia, there are many of them; just calling them “Asian” doesn't really help anyone figure out which species you may have stumbled upon. There are other species that just received names. So, now this helps you get a better idea of potentially where this insect lived originally.
That is more helpful. Getting back to that idea of intent, I know you've tweeted about this and written a little bit about it, but I'd love to hear you explore it: Even the idea of an "invasive" species is assigning a degree of intent that the species lack. The simple reality is that it's people who are really moving these animals around. Can you talk about the idea of “invasive” species and how we frame that concept?
I love that you're asking about this, and it's something that I think about a lot. I cover a lot of species that are "invasive" and even at the top of this conversation, I mentioned that this species came in in an indeterminate way into North America, but it was likely aboard a ship. A lot of the species that are invasive to us were brought in by people. They didn't come here with the intent of taking over. I can't know a hornet's intentions, or whether they are full of malice. I will never know. But because of the way that we use the environment, agriculture is big user of honeybees; European honeybees, which we intentionally brought to the U.S., I think contribute $15 billion a year to the U.S. economy through pollination.
We have a vested interest in keeping these honeybees around, and then there's a hornet that comes in from elsewhere, maybe people brought it here, and it's a threat to that. There's a lot of language that evokes a sense of wartime. These are invading from somewhere else, so we have to keep them from establishing here. And the thing is, these species may just have adaptations that allow them to flourish in a given ecosystem. It might destabilize that ecosystem and disadvantage a lot of other species including us, but the idea that they are "invading" is reading a lot into the situation.
I'm not saying that we should indiscriminately let species do whatever they want to in a given space. Stewardship for humans is a matter of trying to help keep certain ecosystems resilient, especially in the face of climate change. But I think that there's a lot of responsibility that gets shunted onto these species that are often here because of our poor choices.
It's a very wartime vocabulary for, well, it was probably on a pile of fruit that got brought into port.
You work at Crosscut, you cover all about environmental issues in the Northwest. What else are you looking at these days?
Well, I am from Ohio, where we are pretty acclimated to heat, but my new neighbors in the Seattle area are not, so for the past few months I've been doing a lot of reporting on preparation for extreme heat and how to build cities in such a way that they're more equitable in terms of whether everybody can survive these new climate risks that we are dealing with across the world.
We're obviously not dealing with the temperatures that you have out in New York, but people here, just especially at this time of year, aren't used to having such a big swing in heat, so even though it's been in the high 80s and low 90s, there are a lot of people whose bodies just aren't able to hack it, I guess, out here. And so I've been really concerned for my neighbors, but I spend the majority of my time focusing on how people and wildlife are adapting to a changing world and each other.
If you know anyone out here who wants an "invasive" or nonnative species checked out, I'm your girl.
Amazing. All right. And so where can folks find you, where can they find your work?
I work for Crosscut, which is part of the Public Media Service Station in Seattle that includes KCTS 9 PBS. So, crosscut.com, and then I'm also on Twitter with a version of my last name as my handle. I'm pretty accessible, as journalists tend to be.
If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.