BLAINE, Washington. – In the beekeeping decades, Ted McFall had never seen anything like it.
When he stopped the truck to check a group of hives near Custer, Washington, in November, he saw a mess of bee carcasses on the floor through the window. Looking closer, he saw a pile of dead members of the colony in front of a hive and more carnage inside – thousands and thousands of bees with their heads cut off from their bodies and no sign of culprit.
"I couldn't understand what could have done that," said McFall.
Only later did he come to suspect that the killer was what some researchers simply call a "killer wasp".
With queens that can grow up to two inches long, Asian giant wasps you can use jaws in the form of shark fins with spines to end a hive in a matter of hours, beheading the bees and flying with your chests to feed your young. For larger targets, the wasp's powerful venom and stinger – long enough to pierce a beekeeping suit – provide an excruciating combination that the victims compared the hot metal penetrating into their skin.
In Japan, wasps kill up to 50 people a year. Now, for the first time, they have arrived in the United States.
Mr. McFall is still not sure that Asian giant wasps were responsible for looting your hive. But two of the predatory insects were discovered last fall in the northwest corner of Washington state, a few miles north of his property – the first sightings in the United States.
Since then, scientists have embarked on a large-scale hunt for wasps, concerned that invaders could decimate bee populations in the United States and establish a presence so deep that all hopes of eradication could be lost.
"This is our window to prevent establishment," said Chris Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture. "If we can't do that in the next few years, it probably won't be possible."
On a cold morning in early December, two miles north of McFall's property, Jeff Kornelis stepped onto the front porch with his terrier dog. He looked at a shocking sight: "It was the biggest wasp I have ever seen".
The insect was dead, and after inspecting it, Mr. Kornelis had a hunch that it could be a giant Asian drone. It didn't make much sense, given his location in the world, but he had seen an episode of YouTube personality Coyote Peterson getting a brutal sting from one of the wasps.
In addition to its size, the bumblebee has a distinctive appearance, with a caricaturally ferocious face, with teardrop eyes like Spider-Man, orange and black stripes that extend across its body like a tiger and wide, thin wings like a small dragonfly .
Kornelis contacted the state, which confirmed that it was an Asian giant wasp. Soon after, they discovered that a local beekeeper in the area had also found one of the wasps.
Looney said it was immediately clear that the state was facing a serious problem, but with only two insects in hand and winter coming on, it was almost impossible to determine how much the drone had already settled in the home.
During the winter, state agricultural biologists and local beekeepers began work, preparing for the next season. Ruthie Danielsen, a beekeeper who helped organize her colleagues to fight the drone, opened a map on the hood of her vehicle, looking at the locations in Whatcom County where beekeepers set traps.
"Most people are afraid of being bitten by them," said Danielsen. "We are afraid that they will completely destroy our hives."
In addition to the uncertainty – and the mystery -, some other discoveries of the Asian giant wasp crossed the border into Canada.
In November, a single drone was spotted at White Rock, British Columbia, perhaps 10 miles from the discoveries in Washington State – probably too far for the drones to be part of the same colony. Even earlier, he had discovered a hive on Vancouver Island, across a strait that was probably too wide for a drone to have crossed the continent.
The teams managed to track the hive on Vancouver Island. Conrad Bérubé, a beekeeper and entomologist in the city of Nanaimo, was assigned to exterminate him.
He left at night, when the wasps would be in the nest. He wore shorts and thick sweatpants, then the bee suit. He wore the Kevlar device on his ankles and wrists.
But when he approached the hive, he said, the rustle of the bush and the glow of the lantern woke the colony. Before he had a chance to clean the nest with carbon dioxide, he felt the first stabs in the leg – through the bee suit and sweatpants.
"It was like having red-hot tacks being stuffed into my flesh," he said. He ended up being stung at least seven times, some of the stings drawing blood.
Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan, said the species has earned the nickname "killer wasp" because its aggressive group attacks can expose victims to doses of toxic poison equivalent to that of a poisonous snake; a series of stings can be fatal.
The night he was bitten, Mr. Bérubé still managed to eliminate the nest and collect samples, but the next day, his legs were aching, as if he had the flu. Of the thousands of times he was stung in his work life, he said, the Asian giant hornet stings were the most painful.
After collecting the drone in the Blaine area, state officials took part of a leg and sent it to a specialist in Japan. A sample of Nanaimo's nest was also sent.
A genetic examination, completed in recent weeks, determined that the nest at Nanaimo and the drone near Blaine were not connected, said Telissa Wilson, a state pest biologist, meaning that there were probably at least two different presentations in the region.
Looney left on a recent day in Blaine, carrying clear pitchers that had been turned into makeshift traps; Typical wasp and bee traps available for purchase have holes too small for the Asian giant hornet. He filled some orange juice mixed with rice wine, others mixed kefir with water and a third batch was filled with some experimental bait – all with the hope of catching a queen emerging in search of a place to build a nest.
He hung them on the trees, geographically identifying each location with his phone.
In a region with extensive wooded habitats for wasps to establish homes, the task of finding and eliminating them is daunting. How to find burrows that may be hidden underground? And where to look, given that one of the queens can fly many kilometers a day, at speeds of up to 32 kilometers per hour?
The miles of wooded landscapes and the mild, humid climate of western Washington state are the ideal place for wasps to spread.
In the coming months, said Looney, he and others plan to set hundreds of other traps. State officials mapped the plan on a grid, starting at Blaine and moving out.
Stirring activity inside a giant Asian wasp nest can keep the internal temperature up to 86 degrees, so the trackers are also exploring using thermal imaging to examine the forest floor. Later, they can also try other advanced tools that can track the signature buzz that wasps produce in flight.
If a bumblebee is caught in a trap, said Looney, there are plans to possibly use radio frequency identification tags to monitor where it goes – or simply attach a small streamer and follow the hornet when it returns to the nest.
Although most bees cannot fly with a disruptive marker, this is not the case for the Asian giant wasp. It is large enough to support the extra load.