Fine art photographer Natalia Shields was unamused when munched on last week by this hungry hornet. NATALIA SHIELDS

Niagara honeybee population at risk, asserts local apiarist

“Terminate—with extreme prejudice.”

You may remember that line from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now, as instructions an officer gives Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) regarding the rogue Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

It pretty much sums up George Scott’s view of hornets. Not George Scott the actor, who passed away an incredible 21 years ago, but George Scott the beekeeper.

Scott love bees. Honeybees, specifically. In fact, the lifelong Niagara resident is an environmental and agricultural entrepreneur, an advocate for farmers, and, for the past 25 years, a registered beekeeper in Port Colborne. He founded Niagara Beeway in 2001, in an effort to preserve and protect the region’s honeybee population.

According to Scott, safeguarding honeybees (scientifically classified under the genus Apis mellifera) has recently meant dealing with swarms of large aggressive hornets, which have shown a proclivity for overwhelming hives and devouring the creatures inside.

“We’ve never had so many complaints from local beekeepers, from all over Niagara,” said Scott. “We’ve seen these hornets going into beehives, just making an entire mess. I’ve seen six European Giant Hornets kill 200 bees in one hive before we could clear them out. These things are big…they look like hummingbirds going in. The honeybees were trying to attack the hornets to defend their hive. But it was like a medieval knight in armor with a mace, slaughtering a kindergarten.”

Maybe this story should have had a Rated R for Violence advisory at the top. It doesn’t get any better.

Beekeepers have resorted to using fine steel mesh screens as entrance- reducers in the hives, in an effort to deter the hornets from being physically able to enter.

Scott said that the standard protective beekeeper suits which apiarists wear to prevent injury from stinging insects are no match for these new, supersized hornets.

“They can sting right through the suit. Beekeepers who are pretty much bulletproof when it comes to tolerance from stinging insects are missing a couple days work because of the pain and swelling from the hornet stings. They’ve nailed our pest exterminator as he applied chemical treatments to the hornet nests. The standard dose didn’t kill them. He had to double-dose the poison to get rid of these things.”

The standard dose didn’t kill them. They had to double-dose the poison to get rid of these things.

This variety of large hornet also builds nests that are different from those of normal hornets, says Scott.

“It’s like these nests are made out of fibreboard, not the paper nests we usually encounter,” he said.

There are several families of giant hornet, asserts Scott, and none of them are native to Canada. He referenced a European Giant Hornet, a Japanese Giant Hornet, and an Asian Giant Hornet.

“All of them are the enemy of the honeybee beekeeper. They’re not pollinators. They are a pest and invasive species.”

Scott’s first experience with the mega-hornets was in August of 2018, and was reported by the St. Catharines Standard. Rotary Club baseball diamonds in Port Colborne were closed after several nests were discovered on the park’s clay playing surfaces. Scott collaborated with Truly Nolen, a pest control company, to combat the colonies found at the park.

A university professor and entomologist in Montreal studied photos of bugs captured at the scene, and reported that he was “100% sure” that the culprit was a relatively harmless, domestic ground digging wasp called an Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus).

Scott vehemently disagreed.

“What I saw were European Giant Hornets flying into the infield, snagging insects. These weren’t Cicada Killers. In my career, I’ve never had a sting incident from a Cicada Killer. We’re getting stung by something we’ve never seen before. These behave more like a Bald-Faced Wasp. It will follow you to your house,” he said.

Cold winters and pesticides can also be devastating to bee populations, but the predatory threat posed by large, carnivorous hornets is a new phenomenon in Niagara. These bugs have no natural enemies in the insect or animal world. And the manner in which the hornets bring on the honeybees’ demise is rather horrific. Adult bees are decapitated, and their headless thoraxes transported to feed baby hornets. Bee larvae are gobbled up as a protein-laden delicacy. Hence the “Murder Hornet” moniker.

Now for the good news. According to experts who spoke with the Voice, the truly homicidal maniacs are not in Niagara. And given our climate, they probably won’t ever make it this far east.

This refers to the Asian or Japanese Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia) which has been verified in small numbers in the Pacific Northwest since 2019, specifically in Washington and British Columbia. This critter, a honeybee’s worst nightmare, is about two inches long and has a wingspan of about three inches. It can be aggressive, and repeatedly sting its victim, releasing a large amount of venom.

In Niagara, we have a variety of stinging wasps and hornets. European Hornets (Vespa crabro), can grow quite large, and inflict painful stings. Some may have taken on characteristics of their more aggressive and lethal Asian cousins, but the species is not generally regarded as overly aggressive. “Social” wasps and hornets, like the European variety, are cavity nesters, making their nests in hollowed trees, and in the ground.

Also prevalent in the region is the aforementioned passive wasp called the Cicada Killer, and a not-so-harmless stinger known as the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) which is actually a yellow jacket wasp.

Josh Diamond is a water quality specialist with the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority, and has an extensive background in entomology, the study of insects.

“We’ve had calls about giant hornets, and some people have sent us photos or brought in specimens for identification. The majority of them are European Hornets. Some are just bumblebees. There appears to be a lot of confusion. I’m not convinced any Asian Giant Hornets are in Niagara,” said Diamond.

I’m not convinced any Asian Giant Hornets are in Niagara

Another local authority on bugs is Peter Jekel, Manager of Environmental Health for Niagara Region. He told the Voice that the flight across the Rocky Mountains and prairies of Western Canada will likely preclude the Asian variety settling in Ontario.

“They would have a hard time establishing colonies here,” said Jekel. He mentioned that European hornets, which have had a presence in Niagara for about 150 years, can grow quite large (about 1.5 inches long) and are carnivorous. They crave meat, fruit (for the sugar content), and other insects (including honeybees).

Dr. Miriam Richards, a Professor of Biological Sciences at Brock University and an authority on bees, views the threat to humans from the supersized hornets as largely overblown media hype.

She suspects the Asian Giant Hornets likely arrived in Canada after crossing the Pacific Ocean on shipping containers, which are an easy method of transportation for invading species. They seem to have survived one winter in the in the Pacific Northwest, but they might not keep surviving. Richards believes that the chance of the Asian Giants being in Ontario is very low.

Referring to the large European Hornet present in Niagara, Richards said, “They are pretty big and scary looking. The European Hornet is well established here, and with our last mild winter, we are seeing a lot of them around this spring and summer.”

Richards wants people to understand the benefits hornets bring to our ecosystem.

“Hornets and wasps play a crucial role in controlling herbivorous insects like lady bugs and aphids, and are also an efficient predator adept at hunting black flies and other pests,” she said.

Paul Kozak is the official Apiarist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. He told the Voice that he has investigated about 180 reports of suspected Asian Giant Hornets in the province, and that the culprit usually turns out to be a European Hornet. The Ministry tracks all reports, in order to get a better sense of hornet distribution across Ontario. He concedes that the European Hornet can be quite large, and alarming to people.

“We can’t say with 100% certainty that the Asian Giant Hornet is not here, but we have no evidence to suggest that it is present anywhere in Ontario,” said Kozak.

Closer to home, Ryan Cook, Manager of Public Works for the Town of Pelham, told the Voice that the municipality gets about a dozen calls a year related to stinging insects like bees, wasp, and hornets. Often a call is made to a pest control company if the nest is too high for Town workers to deal with the problem.

There is no doubt that large stinging insects abound in Pelham. Photographer Natalia Shields, in Fonthill, was stung by a large hornet in her home recently. She told the Voice she had been doing yard work, and that evening saw what she thought was a clump of grass or dirt on the floor in a dimly lit hallway. Suspecting it had fallen off her work clothes, she scooped it up, and felt an immediate searing pain in her thumb. Flicking on the lights, she discovered it was a large hornet, and quickly dispatched it. Thereafter, she took photos of the bug and sent them to the paper, inspiring the very article that buzzes to an end in three more paragraphs.

Thinking it was one of the dangerous Asian Giant Hornets she had read about in the news, Shields Googled the insect, and was convinced that the online images looked exactly like the one that stung her. Her thumb was swollen and painful for several hours. A dose of Benadryl helped ease her discomfort.

Apiarist George Scott was sent a photo of the insect by the Voice, and reported that it was a European Hornet and not one of the Asian Giant variety. (Scott actually referred to it as a “European Giant Hornet,” although entomologists do not acknowledge the term.)

Insect experts encourage anyone stung by a large hornet to take a photo of it and send it to the appropriate government agency, like the NPCA or Niagara Region Environmental Services. Or better, yet, take it in for identification after calling ahead to check opening hours.