First there were the Africanized honey bees, which sensationalists called "the killer bees."
Don't even mention "assassin flies" or "bullet ants" or "deathwatch beetles."
Now there are the Asian giant hornets (AGH), Vespa mandarinia, which sensationalists have dubbed "murder hornets."
"It's ridiculous to call them murder hornets,” says noted UC Davis wasp expert and researcher Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.
“It's no more likely to sting and kill a human than a honey bee,” said Kimsey, a two-term past president of the International Society of Hymenopterists, an organization that studies bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies.
“Actually it's less likely, as honey bee venom packs quite a punch and it is exclusively designed to defend against vertebrates,” she said.
“The colony everyone is hyperventilating over was actually found on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, last September when it was destroyed and then a single, dead hornet was found in December in Blaine, Wash.,” Kimsey said. “There is no evidence that there are any more hornets in the vicinity of Vancouver or anywhere else on the West Coast.”
These were the first detections of this species in North America, but there may be more, according to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). Beekeepers have reported “observations” (which may or may not be the same species) dating back to October 2019, according to officials in Washington State University's Department of Entomology and Cooperative Extension. They and the beekeeping organizations want to know what's out there and they want folks to keep a lookout for them.
Said Kimsey: “A decade or more ago there was a colony of another species, Vespa asiatica, reported near the Port of Long Beach but nothing ever came of that either. A European species, Vespa crabro, was introduced into the East Coast perhaps a century ago and it is now fully established in the southeastern U.S.”
Kimsey points out that insects often come in cargo boxes from Asia to U.S. ports, establish colonies, and expand their range.
A soon-to-be-published article in the Entomological Society of America's journal, Insect Systematics and Diversity, promises to shed more light on the genus and the history of introductions in the United States.Kimsey and colleagues Allanmith-Pardo of the USDA and James Carpenter of the America Museum of History, New York, co-authored the review article.
In the abstract, the authors define Vespa as social wasps that are “primarily predators of other insects, and some species are know to attack and feed on honey bees, Apis mellifera, which makes them a serious threat to apiculture.”
“Vespa nests can be physically large, with over 1,000 workers, but usually with hundreds of workers,” they wrote. “Nests can be aerial, attached to tree branches or in shrubs, in crevices, under eaves or underground depending on the species. Depending on the latitude, nests can be either annual, started by a new queen every spring, or perennial, where young queens take over from old ones. Colonies in warm tropical climates tend to be perennial.”
Washington State University (WSU) Extension recently published an AGH fact sheet, the work of three scientists: Susan Cobey, bee breeder-geneticist and husband Timothy Lawrence, county director of Island County Extension (both formerly of UC Davis), and Mike Jensen, county director of Pend Oreille. (See https://bit.ly/2SA3TxS)
Yes, hornets are huge. They measure about two inches long, and the queens can fly up to 20 miles per day, said Cobey, who examined specimens in Japan last December and shipped some of them to WSU.
The WSU scientists wrote that AGH “is the world's largest species of hornet, native to temperate and tropical Eastern Asia low mountains and forests. The hornet is well adapted to conditions in the Pacific Northwest.”
“The primary purpose of venom is defense against predators by inflicting pain and damage,” they wrote. ”Vespa mandarinia is one of the two most venomous known insects in the world.. The amount of venom each wasp delivers (4.1 μl/ wasp) has designated V. mandarinia as the most venomous insect. In comparison, the honey bee has about 0.6μl/bee. When foraging for food in spring, the AGH is not highly defensive – unless its nest is disturbed. Late summer and fall, with the high demand for protein, they become very aggressive when attacking or occupying a honey bee colony.”
“It is critical that we identify, trap, and attempt to eliminate this new pest before it becomes established and widespread,” they wrote. “Attempts to contain the spread and eradication of this invasive insect will be most effective in trapping queens during early spring before their nests become established. Finding the nests can be a bit of a challenge. Their nests are typically in the ground though they can also be found under overhangs and within wall voids. The AGH is a strong flier and often will fly up and away and have an extensive flight range. Thus tracking can be difficult.”
They advise residents to “proceed with extreme caution and contact WSDA immediately. Do not try to exterminate the nest yourself.”
Entomologists call them Asian giant hornets or Vespa mandarinia.
Could we just go back to calling them Asian giant hornets or AGH or Vespa mandarina?
Meanwhile, scientists want to know where the monarchs are in the early spring. When the iconic butterflies head inland from their coastal overwintering sites, where do they go?
To participate in the Western Monarch Mystery Challenge:
- If you see a monarch outside of overwintering groves, take a picture! (Don't worry, it can be far away and blurry.)
- Report it to iNaturalist (the app is free) OR email MonarchMystery@wsu.edu and be sure to include date, species and location for both methods
- You will automatically be entered to win a variety of prizes every week you report a sighting.
All data will be added to the Western Monarch Milkweed Mapper, a year-round community science project tracking milkweeds and monarchs in the West.
UC Davis alumnus Christopher Jason, a technician in the Schultz lab, said WSU researchers are collaborating with the Elizabeth Crone lab at Tufts University; Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation; and UC Santa Cruz. Crone, a biology professor recently on a research sabbatical at UC Davis, told the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology at a seminar Jan. 30 (the same day that Shapiro sighted a monarch in Sacramento) that more research needs to be done on where monarchs are in the spring, as that is a "critical point in their life cycle." Monarch populations are at their lowest at this time of year, Crone said, and individual butterflies may be at their "weakest right after their long overwintering diapause.”In an email, Jason reiterated that "The Western Monarch Mystery Challenge is a campaign to find out where western monarch butterflies are in early spring. We know they spend the winter months (November to February) in groves along the California coast, and start breeding in central California in May, and in some cases, as early as February. However, we know a lot less about where they are and what they're up to in February, March, and April. Solving the mystery of where western monarchs spend the spring is central to conserving and restoring the phenomenon of monarch migration in the West."
It's the work of Washington State University's Honey Bee Research Program, College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences (WSU CAHNRS), and accessible free online on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/380776410.
The 28-minute video, two years in the making, is aimed at helping beekeepers improve their stock and overcome some of the obstacles they may face in their breeding efforts.
The UC Davis connection is strong. The video chronicles the work of "the father of honey bee genetics," Harry H. Laidlaw Jr., of the University of California, Davis, for whom the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis, is named. The husband-wife scientific team, Susan Cobey and Timothy Lawrence, both formerly of UC Davis and now of WSU, are executive producers and are featured in the video, as is noted bee scientist Steve Sheppard, director of the WSU Center for Reproductive Biology and former chair of the WSU Department of Entomology. The trio, also the authors, describe the Page-Laidlaw Population Breeding Program, one of the most successful bee breeding program and named for Laidlaw and Robert E. Page Jr., now a distinguished emeritus professor at UC Davis and emeritus provost, Arizona State University.
The video is "a guideline, that bees respond to selection but they need to be aware of some of the pitfalls that can hamper progress," said Lawrence, county director of WSU Extension for Island County. He's been working with bees since 1963 and landed his first commercial beekeeping job in 1969.
Sheppard says in the introductory remarks: "Honey bees are fascinating animals to work with and essential to pollination of our food supply. Currently faced with many challenges, one of our most important tools for long-term sustainability and improved honey bee health is a program of selection for stock that is hearty, productive, winters well, and has a reduced susceptibility to pests and pathogens."
Sheppard, Cobey and Lawrence know their bees. Between them, their bee experience encompasses some 150 years. Cobey, a bee breeder-geneticist who began working with bees in 1976, studied with Laidlaw, and later managed the Laidlaw facility. She is recognized as a global expert on instrumental insemination. Sheppard, who specializes in genetics and evolution of honey bees, and insect introductions and mechanisms of genetic differentiation, began working with bees while a graduate student at the University of Georgia.
In the video, Sheppard points out that "beekeepers recognize the need for more rigorous programs to select, improve and maintain their breeding stocks. The varroa mite and the movement of Africanized honey bees adds to this urgency. The principles discussed here serve as a guide to develop and establish a successful and practical breeding program with a focus on the traits you choose to enhance is your breeding population."
- Maintain a diverse population to provide the basis for selection
- A proficiency in queen and drone rearing
- Establish a selection index of desired traits
- Careful record-keeping
- Control of pests and diseases, and
- A method of controlled mating.
"The honey bee colony is a superorganism and this complicates the selection process," says Cobey, who breeds Carniolan bees. "Keeping your breeding program simple is key. Genetic diversity within the colony as well as within the population increases honey bee fitness. Several mechanisms contribute to this diversity:
- The high mating frequency of the queen.
- Semen storage--after mating only about 10 percent of the semen collected migrates to the spermatheca, although this represents each drone she has mated with."
- The high rate of recombination. a queen can mate with up to 60 drones, though typically mates with 15 to 20 drones. This mating behavior seems risky and inefficient, though is very successful in creating a genetically diverse superorganism, the colony."
"The many subfamilies of worker bees represented by the different drones mated, subfamilies specialize in different traits," Cobey says, "which together contribute to colony fitness."
She relates that "beekeepers and bee researchers have been selecting the honey bee for many years--some of the earliest attempts included attempting to mate bees in a confined enclosure or by hand .discoveries in the queens anatomy and physiology led to the first break through in controlled mating of honey bees with instrumental insemination.we owe a lot to some of the early pioneers in bee breeding like Laidlaw, (Lloyd) Watson, (Otto) Mackensen, (William) Roberts and many others."
Page-Laidlaw Closed Population Breeding Program
Noting that the Page-Laidlaw Closed Population Breeding Program "is one of the most successful practical breeding systems used, Cobey explains "the system basically is how most beekeepers approach selection--choose the best and propagate from these. The key component is an annual selection program supported with controlled mating and record keeping. Beekeepers rely on natural selection pressure to increase desirable traits in the population. The goal of the closed population breeding program is to increase the selection pressure and the frequency of desirable traits in the breeding population. Given the behavioral complexity of honey bees, this can be a challenging process. To be successful and give the program, longevity, it must be simple and repeatable."
The video drew nearly 1,000 views the first week. The first comment: "Great video! ....where can i buy that bee hat that Susan is wearing? Thanks so much!"
Cobey does have some nice hats!
Where are all the monarch butterflies?
There's good news and bad news.
First, the bad news:
"An Epic Migration on the Verge of Collapse," wrote the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation on its website detailing monarch conservation.
"Both the eastern and western migrations have experienced significant decline in a matter of decades," they wrote. "In the 1990s, nearly 700 million monarchs made the epic flight each fall from the northern plains of the U.S. and Canada to sites in the oyamel fir forests north of Mexico City. Now, researchers and citizen scientists estimate that there has been a decline of more than 80% in the east. In the west, the news is more dire. Monarchs have experienced a decline of 99.4% in coastal California, from an estimated 4.5 million in the 1980s to 28,429 as of January 2019."
In our pollinator garden in Vacaville, I've seen only two monarchs this year. One, a female, lingered on the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) for about 30 minutes on Sunday.
But as luck would have it, a family member spotted a monarch this morning in the garden section of a home improvement store in Vacaville and captured this video (below). It was laying eggs on tropical milkweeds, Asclepias curassavica.
That's three. That's a far cry from the 60 we reared in 2016.
Now the good news:
Brookings, Ore., is fluttering with monarchs.
From the Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, covering Washington State University entomologist David James' research and the work of his many citizen scientists, comes the remarkable story of a female monarch named Ovaltine (since passed) and her progeny:
Aug. 23: "The biggest Monarch story on the west coast right now has to be the population explosion in the far southern Oregon coastal town of Brookings! From a single female (that we know about) 'dumping' more than 700 eggs at one Monarch Waystation in late June, there is now such an abundance of Monarchs in Brookings that every patch of Milkweed seems to have eggs on it! It's quite likely that a few other Monarchs also laid a lot of eggs in Brookings in June, but what has been surprising is the way that females have targeted single Milkweed patches for egg 'dumping'. Egg 'dumping' has been observed in other Brookings Milkweed patches, some of them very small. Holly Beyer, whose Waystation hosted the first egg 'dumping' female, has now had to limit egglaying by the new generation of 'egg dumpers' by enclosing her milkweed in netting cages, for fear of the larvae running out of food! I have never heard of anybody needing to do this before! Brookings is an official 'Monarch City' so its certainly living up to its name and the Monarch festival to be held there in early September should be graced by plenty of Monarchs dropping in!"
Aug. 29: "Holly has counted more than 1800 eggs laid by Ovaltine's tagged daughters in her garden! Ovaltine's 'grandchildren' will soon begin eclosing (from mid-September to mid-October) and of course will be the migratory generation. Their numbers will be limited by milkweed availability in Brookings but I expect significant numbers of fresh, migrant monarchs to be milling around Brookings in the coming weeks, feeding on nectar before they depart southward. If Holly had not captive-reared Ovaltine's progeny, there would not be monarchs flying around Brookings in the numbers we are currently seeing! We do not generally consider captive-rearing to be a good conservation strategy for monarchs but in this instance it has demonstrably contributed to monarch conservation. If you want to see monarchs flying, then a trip to Brookings, Oregon in September could be in order!"
If you see any WSU-tagged monarchs migrating through California to their overwintering sites along the coast, photograph them and contact David James at email@example.com. We distinctly remember the tagged monarch from Ashland, Ore. (tagged by Steve Johnson and part of the David James' citizen science project) that passed through our garden on Labor Day, 2016. (See Bug Squad post.)
Our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., usually draws dozens of them in the summer as they flutter around, sip nectar from the Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) and lay their eggs on their host plant, milkweed.
Then in late summer and fall, the migratory monarchs from the Pacific Northwest pass through on their way to their overwintering sites in coastal California, including Pacific Grove and Santa Cruz.
Something is happening this year, and it's not good.
As a "monarch mom," I reared and released more than 60 in 2016. This year so far: zero, zip, zilch. In fact, I never saw a single monarch in our pollinator garden this year until Monday, Aug. 13, and then again today (Friday, Aug. 30) when a male fluttered in and hung around for several hours.
This time last year and in 2016? Often five to seven sightings a day.
"What's going on with the monarchs?" I asked butterfly expert Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has monitored the butterfly population in central California for more than four decades and maintains a research website. "All I have on our milkweed are aphids and milkweed bugs, and occasional bees and hover flies."
I also haven't seen a single monarch on the UC Davis campus. Neither have fellow photographers and naturalists who keep an eye out for them.
Background: Shapiro has been surveying fixed routes at 10 sites at approximately two-week intervals since 1972. They range from "the Sacramento River delta, through the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada mountains, to the high desert of the western Great Basin." As he says on his website, "the sites represent the great biological, geological, and climatological diversity of central California." As of the end of 2006, he has logged "5476 site-visits and tallied approximately 83,000 individual records of 159 butterfly species and subspecies. This major effort is continuing and represents the world's largest dataset of intensive site-specific data on butterfly populations collected by one person under a strict protocol. We have also collated monthly climate records for the entire study period from weather stations along the transect."
So, what's going on with the monarchs?
"You are not alone (in not sighting them)," he related in an email yesterday. "I have seen one adult monarch in the Valley in the past five weeks (and about 6 in the Sierra, migrating westward). I have not seen a single wild larva in 2018. Anywhere! Everybody's talking about it. We know there was some breeding at Fallon, Nev., but only a couple of adults have been seen in Reno. Either they are breeding in recondite places, which is possible, or the population is in serious collapse. We will know which by early November when we see what shows up at the overwintering sites. One thing is certain: it's not due to milkweed shortage!"
The statistics on his Looking Backward section of his website indicate these monarch sightings:
- 2015: 100
- 2016: 64
- 2017: 54
- 2018: 20
Note that this is the time of year when citizen scientists in entomologist David James' migratory monarch research program at Washington State University (my alma mater) tag and release them throughout much of the Pacific Northwest. (See Bug Squad)
They should be passing through our area soon. In fact, the third anniversary of "The WSU Traveler" is rapidly approaching: On Labor Day, Sept. 5, 2016, one of the tagged butterflies from James' citizen scientist program in Ashland, Ore., fluttered into our yard (see above photograph). The monarch, a male, hung around for five hours, sipping nectaring and circling around.
The background: Citizen scientist Steven Johnson of Ashland tagged and released the male, No. A6093, on Sunday, Aug. 28. It "flew 285 miles in 7 days or about 40.7 miles per day," James told us. "Pretty amazing. So, I doubt he broke his journey for much more than the five hours you watched him--he could be 100 miles further south by now. Clearly this male is on his way to an overwintering colony and it's possible we may sight him again during the winter in Santa Cruz or Pacific Grove!”
Maybe we'll see another tagged one this year? The odds do not look good.
As the WSU Facebook page, Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest, related today:
"While the migration from the PNW (Pacific Northwest) to California has been underway for about 2 weeks, September is when it really ramps up. Unlike the migration in eastern USA this year, our migration is subtle and comprised of much smaller numbers of butterflies. In fact there will be very few Monarchs migrating south from British Columbia, Washington and northern Idaho because we simply did not have significant summer populations in these areas this year. However, our research-based WSU breeding/tagging program will result in hundreds of tagged Monarchs migrating from various parts of Washington State. Apart from the celebrated Washington State Penitentiary tagging program, this year we also have more than 30 members of Cowiche Canyon Conservancy (Yakima) and the Washington Butterfly Association (Seattle, Spokane) each rearing and tagging small numbers of Monarchs. The first tagged Monarchs from this program were released yesterday (August 30) so watch out for them as they head south! And please be ready to capture an image on your phone that you can email to us."
So, if you see a tagged monarch butterfly from the WSU program, kindly photograph it and send the information to David James and his fellow researchers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every sighting helps.