Why this invasive species is getting a brand-new name


The Entomological Society of America and the Entomological Society of Canada have adopted a new name for the murder hornet, also known as the Asian giant hornet, saying “the usage of ‘Asian’ in the name of a pest insect can unintentionally bolster anti-Asian sentiment” especially “amid a rise in hate crimes and discrimination against people of Asian descent.”

Since all wasps are native to Asia, the name Asian giant hornet does not convey unique information about the biology or behavior of the species, according to the ESA.

Chris Looney, entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, authored the name change proposal, saying that the previous common name of the species, scientifically called Vespa mandarinia, “is at best a neutral and uninformative adjective, potentially a distraction from more salient characters of the organism, and at worst a racist trope.”
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“I don’t want my Asian American or Pacific Islander colleagues, friends and family to have any negative connotations with invasive or pest species that might be used against them in a negative way,” ESA President Jessica Ware said.

In 2021, ESA updated its guidelines for acceptable insect common names to ban names that refer to ethnic or racial groups or may cause fear, and discourage names that reference geographical areas, especially for invasive species.
“Common names are an important tool for entomologists to communicate with the public about insects and insect science,” Ware said in a release Monday. “Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination.”

The northern giant hornet poses a potential threat to honeybees, human health and agriculture, said Karla Salp, acting communications director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

In 2019, the hornet now known as the northern giant hornet was found in Washington State, and there have been efforts to eradicate the species entirely since then. The public helped find three out of the four nests that have been eradicated in the state, demonstrating that public awareness is critical.

Washington State is the only US state that has had confirmed northern giant hornet sightings, but the species could find habitat elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest if not contained, according to a 2021 study in the Journal of Insect Science.
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“If allowed to establish in regions within North America, the northern giant hornet could significantly impact local ecosystems,” according to the ESA’s common name toolkit for the northern giant hornet.

“Northern giant hornets generally do not attack people, but will do so if provoked or threatened,” the toolkit said. “Their stinger is longer than that of bees and wasps found in North America, and their venom is more toxic.”

Northern giant hornets are not the only thing that causes damage to honeybee hives, and the word murder evokes fear, Ware said. She hopes that the name change will allow people to learn about and understand the species from a wider perspective.

“Even though the northern giant hornet has some negative things about it, like all of the 1.5 million insect species out there, it’s got a complicated life,” Ware said. “Some parts of its life history and ecology are really fascinating. It’s been around for over millions of years before humans even came on the scene.”

Ware encourages people to submit a request to the Better Common Names Project if there is an insect name they believe should be changed.



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