The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed Wednesday that the Asian giant hornet found in Washington last week was a queen.
Officials say the queen was also mated, and if she started a nest it will not survive without her.
The Asian giant hornet was discovered last week, the first one found in the state since the invasive species showed up in the U.S. late last year.
The dead hornet was found by someone walking on the road near Custer, Wash. on May 27. The Dept. of Agriculture credited the “eagle-eyed” resident for the discovery.
Entomologists confirmed it was an Asian giant hornet from the photo submitted to the state, and also used lab testing to confirm the specimen.
But the bigger news - officials believe the new hornet is a queen, a sign of a potentially larger problem in the race to eradicate the pests.
“What that means is something made it through the winter, and since colonies can produce a few hundred queens, it means we probably have a few more to look for as well, which is why it’s significant," said Sven-Erik Spichiger, with the state Department of Agriculture.
This hornet was found near the location of a suspected bee kill by Asian giant hornets at the end of 2019. WSDA will continue trapping plans in the area to try and find any colonies or queens that may be there.
The queen identification must be confirmed at a D.C. lab, officials said, and they also don't yet know if it had established its own colony, or been fertilized. The hope was the hornets spotted last year had come over on their own and would die out over the winter.
“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has developed response guidelines that include several options for eradicating the Asian giant hornet should additional hornets be detected in Washington State. At this time, there is no evidence that Asian giant hornets are established in Washington State or anywhere else in the United States,” according to Osama El-Lissy, Deputy Administrator, for USDA/APHIS’ Plant Protection and Quarantine program.
Calling the hornets 'established,' state officials said, is a technical bar that has still not been met with this discovery, though Washington is "right on the cusp."
How the hornets got here, we may never know, though officials identified international shipping as a likely vector.
The Dept. of Ag said British Columbia identified an Asian giant hornet on May 15 a few miles away in Langley, B.C. Spichiger said that is also believed to be a queen.
Asian giant hornets are not known to be aggressive towards humans, but can cause problems – their venom is more toxic, and stingers longer than native insects. Attacks can be fatal.
The more urgent concern – if the hornets gain a foothold in the U.S., they could decimate bee populations. The hornets enter a ‘slaughter phase,’ where they can kill thousands of bees, decapitating them. Bees that evolved around Asian giant hornets have developed techniques to fight back, but bees in North America have no such response.
Experts note hundreds of crops in Washington rely on bees to pollinate plants.
"To me the scariest thing is the impact this could have on our managed pollinators," Spichiger said.
The vicious behavior towards bees earned the insects a controversial nickname in some circles, 'murder hornets.' State officials said Friday they take issue with that - worrying it hides vital information from people that search the term online.
Spichiger stressed that time remains a factor as they work to trap and eradicate the giant hornets. They are working on the capability to capture live workers over the summer and track them back to nests, which they will then destroy.
The clock is ticking before fall, though, when any established colonies would begin producing more queens for the next year.
"We do not want any to go through to October or so when they create breeding caste, and starting the next year's population," Spichiger said. "So we want to locate and eliminate as many nests as we can probably prior to the end of September."
To learn more about Asian giant hornets, or report a sighting – click here. State officials say if you see one – take a picture if safely able, but leave it alone.
Spichiger also said there are conversations about options to make keeping Asian giant hornets on property illegal if they are identified.