SALT LAKE CITY — Whether it’s escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Australia’s devastating wildfires or the global pandemic, 2020 has been chock-full of bleak headlines.
Enter the murder hornet.
The insect has been featured in countless articles and triggered a wave of internet humor — with a name like the murder hornet, that’s no surprise. Officially called the Asian giant hornet, or Vespa mandarinia, the massive insect can grow up to 2 inches long and boasts pincers that can decapitate a honeybee.
The murder hornet was first reported in the U.S. in December in Washington state, although there have only been two confirmed sightings, both confined to the Pacific Northwest. Stephen Stanko, entomologist for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said while the hornet is certainly on his radar, it’s premature to sound the alarm just yet.
“The threat of invasive species is constant, it’s nothing new for us,” he said. “At this point it’s unclear what the overall risk for the U.S. is.”
So, is the murder hornet really something you should be losing sleep over?
“I would be much more afraid of mosquitoes than murder hornets,” said Ary Faraji, executive director of the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District. “Mosquitos are a vector — an organism that can pick up a pathogen, amplify it and then transmit it to another organism.”
Despite lacking “murder” as a preface, mosquitos are the most deadly animal on the planet. The World Health Organization estimates millions of people die each year from mosquito-transmitted diseases like West Nile virus, Zika or malaria. In 2018, there were 228 million cases of malaria worldwide, resulting in 405,000 deaths.
In Utah, mosquito-borne diseases don’t pose the same threat they do in places that lack access to medication like hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug that has been floated as a possible treatment for COVID-19. But it’s a threat nonetheless, especially West Nile virus, the most common disease transmitted by mosquitoes in the U.S, according to Statista.
In 2019, Faraji’s department recorded 21 human cases of the virus and one death. But the Mosquito Abatement District also found West Nile virus in 272 mosquito pools — a collection of about 100 mosquitos from the same location and date — in the Salt Lake City area.
Which is why Faraji and his employees have been listed as essential workers throughout the coronavirus pandemic. An unabated mosquito population could prompt another public health crisis, and if inspectors hadn’t discovered those 272 mosquito pools, the rates of West Nile virus cases, and subsequent deaths, could be higher.
“We are a public health service, and we want to ensure that one aspect of public health doesn’t confound another component of it,” Faraji said.
This spring has been dry, which Faraji says could hinder mosquito populations. But he said he needs a crystal ball to know how bad the spread of West Nile virus will impact the Beehive State this summer.
“It’s very difficult for me to put all this together because the environment, climatology, species biology and habitat ecology all have to interlay with each other to predict what will happen with mosquito populations or disease activity,” he said.
Crews with the Mosquito Abatement District are constantly patrolling Salt Lake City, eliminating mosquito pools in street gutters, ponds and other hot spots. The district will even stock ponds and other water sources with mosquito eating fish to mitigate populations.
But Faraji and his inspectors can’t do it all. While the Mosquito Abatement District has a good grasp on mosquito populations in public areas, it’s impossible to inspect the thousands of residences in Salt Lake City. It’s up to the public to make sure there isn’t standing water conducive to mosquitos on their own property. Whether it’s a ditch, homemade pond, empty swimming pool, even a wheelbarrow left in the backyard, it can breed mosquitoes.
As for the murder hornet, Stanko said the ominous name and sheer size of the insect triggers the same often irrational fear associated with sharks or plane crashes. In Japan the hornet kills between 30 to 50 people each year, according to Reuters, and Stanko said perspective is key.
“About 50 people die every year from lightning strikes in the U.S. While terrible — ideally no one would die from lightning strikes or stinging insects — it’s certainly not an existential threat,” he said. “An outbreak of West Nile has the ability to kill many more than 50 people each year.”
But like any invasive species, the hornet has the potential to harm native wildlife populations, particularly honeybees.
“It definitely would have an impact on beekeepers, it would increase costs for them,” he said. “It would be one extra thing that they would have to deal with, but there’s bigger threats that beekeepers are already dealing with right now.”
So rest assured, the murder hornet is not coming for you — yet. But the almighty mosquito could be.