It’s a win for insects.
The large two-inch hornet Vespa mandarinia, which is an invasive species in North America (it likely unwittingly hitched a ride in shipping cargo multiple times), has been popularly — and problematically — called both “murder hornet” and “Asian giant hornet” for the last couple of years. Now, that’s changing.
The Entomological Society of America announced on July 25 that the common name for this species is now “northern giant hornet.” “Murder hornet” was a particularly irresponsible name because it unfairly villainized insects, the foundation of our food web.
“Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination,” Entomological Society of America president Jessica Ware, an entomologist, said in a statement.
Don’t buy the ‘murder hornet’ hype
There are a number of compelling reasons to ditch the name “murder hornet”:
The animals aren’t even called “murder hornets” where they’re native in places like Japan. “No one calls them ‘murder hornet,'” Akito Kawahara, an entomologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History who researches the evolution and diversity of insects, previously told Mashable. “People there [in Japan] often call them a ‘large hornet’ or a ‘giant hornet.'”
Insects are often misunderstood in modern society. They are not evil, though we have to watch for or control the ones that spread disease. “It’s a ridiculous name,” said Kawahara. “Insects already have a bad perception.”
Animals don’t “murder.” People, unfortunately, murder people. We don’t need to spin these horrific actions onto insects. Yes, the species are large. And they can aggressively decimate bee colonies. But they’re not interested in you. They have better things to do.
“They’re not after you,” Heather Mattila, a biologist at Wellesley College who researches honey bees and other insects, told Mashable in 2020. “They’re after their prey.”
“It’s a ridiculous name.”
What’s more, the name “Asian giant hornet” also proved problematic. That’s because of the tendency for some people to use the word “Asian” in pejorative ways — as has been similarly done with the coronavirus. “There’s potential for problems that should be avoided,” Kawahara said.
A great northern hornet.
In contrast, “northern giant hornet” works well because it provides a good descriptor of where the species is located in Asia without, as Ware described above, “evoking fear or discrimination.”
These big hornets, however, are an invasive species. And like many invasive species, they pose problems. That’s why the Washington State Department of Agriculture, which has adopted the new naming guidance, seeks to eradicate this species by finding and destroying their nests. These big hornets prey on honey bees, and can threaten their populations.
“This is definitely an animal we don’t want in North America, if we can avoid it,” Mark Willis, an entomologist at Case Western Reserve University, told Mashable in 2020.
“They’re not after you.”
These days, it’s unlikely you’ll see a northern giant hornet in the U.S. unless you’re in a corner of the Pacific Northwest. But when you do come across insects, even big ones, it’s important to remember that they’re normal, beneficial members of our ecosystem. And many are critical pollinators.
It would behoove us all to grow comfortable around these globally dominant critters. “People always ask me, ‘When are the insects going to take over the world?'” Eric Day, an entomologist at Virginia Tech, said when I spoke with him about cicadas.
“They already have.”