The story behind those monikers is both complicated and unfortunate.
When the large, invasive hornet from Asia landed in Washington state in 2019, it arrived with a scientific name — Vespa mandarinia — but no name that the general public would recognize. So when the New York Times described it as a “murder hornet” in an article about efforts to eradicate it a few months later, with ample reference to the hornet’s powerful stings and methods of eating honeybees, the provocative nickname filled the vacuum.
State and federal agencies asked people to monitor for the hornet, characterized as a threat to ecosystems and agriculture, and put out public service announcements akin to wanted posters. The country meme’d its way into a panic, killing many harmless insects along the way.
Concern grew over the nickname – as well the increasingly popular “Asian giant hornet” alternative – not only misrepresenting the species but also escalating anti-Asian xenophobia.
It's time to update our vocabulary, entomologists say. More than two years later and prompted by a Washington state entomologist, the country’s leading entomological society gave the species a “common” name it hopes the general public will use instead: northern giant hornet.
The new name not only better reflects the diversity of hornet species around the world but also aligns with Entomological Society of America naming guidelines, which were updated last summer to be more inclusive.
"Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination,” said the society’s president, Dr. Jessica Ware, in a press release.
The Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Dr. Chris Looney submitted new names for this hornet and two other closely related insects in a proposal received by the Entomological Society of America on April 4, 2022. He suggested 'giant hornet' or 'northern giant hornet' as strong alternatives to the society, which has about 5,800 members.
Looney pointed out the hornet’s potential impact on ecosystems and agriculture, amplified by publicity of a $2 million-plus eradication program, made it a matter of interest and concern and therefore worth naming. But more than that, he wrote, the existing nicknames were problematic.
“Although the descriptor 'Asian' in this context is not at all pejorative, and is geographically accurate, its association with a large insect that inspires fear and is under eradication may bolster anti-Asian sentiment among some people,” he wrote.
The nicknames not only don’t help people distinguish the insect — there are multiple hornets from Asia, for one, and a species already known as Asian hornet, for two — but also may alienate people from participating in the eradication, he explained.
"Northern giant hornet" acknowledges the hornet’s most eye-catching attribute, and makes the change less of a hassle for scientists and public outreach alike. With another hornet species receiving the new common name ‘southern giant hornet,’ “a Google search for just ‘giant hornet’ would return results for both [species]. So, keeping the [geographic] descriptors for both works to avoid such confusion,” said Joe Rominiecki of the Entomological Society of America. Other possible names were “sparrow hornet,” “temperate giant hornet” and “common giant hornet.”
The response has been “supportive” so far, Rominiecki said. Agencies involved with insect monitoring, like the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, have already updated their web page for the species, and Washington’s agriculture department has said it will adopt the new name and update its engagement resources.
“It will take some time to update, but hopefully all of the online updates will be completed in the next month or so. Printed publications will take longer, and will be updated as new materials need to be printed,” said WSDA’s Karla Salp.
Whether people will use the new name is anyone’s guess. Last summer, the entomological society renamed the Spongy Moth, which previously had a bigoted name. “Based on what I am seeing with spongy moth, it [may] take some time or even never happen,” Salp said. She still gets Google alerts for the previous name, “and I notice that in places where the insect has been called by the same name for over a century, the ESA name has not yet taken hold.”
The fact that the northern giant hornet’s nicknames were only around for a few years, may give the new name an edge, she said, “but there has been massive media attention around this insect, so collectively it is mostly know as ‘murder hornet’ I would say. It is easier to change policy than practice.”
Meanwhile, WSDA’s trapping efforts to eradicate the northern giant hornet in Washington are in full swing, with 1,150 total traps spread over 310 square miles. Salp said the hornet is still a priority insect for WSDA’s pest program, and that eradication “still looks possible but is not guaranteed.”
“We’ll continue to trap and attempt to eradicate the hornets until either we have three years of no detections or they have become established and eradication is no longer possible,” she said.