It’s hard to keep track sometimes, what with protests in the streets, a dysfunctional electoral process hogging the headlines, and months of lockdown to avoid a mutant strain of virus that is very real, and very deadly. But do you remember when this crazy summer was at its sultriest, the calendar finally melting into a blur and the virus heading toward another peak, when a different sort of panic penetrated our collective newsfeeds?
I’m talking about Murder Hornets.
That’s right. Gangs of giant Asian hornets have arrived on American shores, where they rampage through beehives, decapitating innocent honeybees at the rate of one every 14 seconds, methodically rolling the corpses into tidy meatballs to serve to their young. And while the New York Times noted soberly that humans are not the preferred victims of Murder Hornets, the homicidal insects nonetheless take out about 50 people a year in Japan alone.
Naturally, this new threat got a great deal of attention in the press. But my kids started school today (online of course) and we’re all still here. That means we’ve survived the Summer of the Murder Hornets, not to mention a host of other wild animals that, according to news reports, should have wiped us all out before the solstice.
Now I’m not one to downplay the potential danger of encountering wild animals on their own turf. In grizzly country, nobody has to remind me who the beta predator is. I avoid chasing bison in the National Parks, and when I hear a rattle in the brush I step back, slowly. These are prudent habits for anyone who ventures into the tall grass of a suburban backyard, let alone the backcountry. Call it common sense for common critters. But are we worrying enough about the uncommon threats—the killer bees, meth gators and the like? To help answer that question, we present this taxonomy of wild animals that haven’t killed us, yet.
Scientists agree Murder Hornets are a serious threat in North America because bees here have no defense against their wonton rampages. The rest of us fear murder hornets simply because they’re called murder hornets.
In Japan, honeybees have developed a technique to cook invading giant hornets to death. As the hornets tear through a hive, ripping little bee heads from little bee bodies, the would-be victims form a ball around their attacker and then vibrate in unison to create heat. The mass of bees works like a tiny oven, raising the temperature to more than 115 degrees. Bees can stand that heat, but hornets can’t. After about an hour of slow roasting, the hornet dies.
This defense is the product of thousands of years of co-evolution. American bees are never going to learn in time, which means the rapacious giant hornets pose a very real threat to bee populations already devastated by parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition, habitat loss and pesticides.
They pose less of a threat to humans, but they’re still scary as hell. Asian giant hornets can be nearly two inches long, with a nasty stinger that easily penetrates beekeeper suits. One battled a rat to the death, on video.
Authorities in Washington have thus far trapped seven of the invasive hornets in a desperate rush to eradicate the serial-killing insects before they solidify their North American beachhead. It’s serious business, but as for the Murder Hornet moniker, scientists merely roll their eyes.
“That is definitely an overblown nickname,” smirks Chris Looney, an entomologist for the Washington State Department of Agriculture who keeps a stuffed antelope head in his office cube.
One problem with hybrids, broadly speaking, is that they can combine the hyper-aggressive tendencies of smaller subspecies with the physical heft of their larger cousins. Take Florida for example, where Burmese pythons have escaped to the wild and displaced the native gator as the apex predator in the Everglades. The effect on wild rodents has been apocalyptic. “According to one study, between 1997 and 2012 the Everglades’ raccoon, opossum and bobcat populations dropped 99.3, 98.9, and 87.5 percent respectively,” History reports. Marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits and foxes effectively disappeared.
The scourge started like a scene out of a science fiction movie, when Category 5 Hurricane Andrew destroyed a python breeding facility in 1992. The constrictors escaped into the surrounding swamp and began to reproduce at alarming rates. On a steady diet of native rodents, birds and even deer, these big mammas regularly grow to 20 feet or more. If that’s not scary enough, scientists tell us they’re now mixing with their smaller, craftier, and (some say) meaner cousins, the Indian Python. The result is a more adaptable killing machine that threatens to further upset the ecological balance in South Florida.
When you stir the genetic petri dish, you never know what will happen. Take lions and tigers. They don’t indulge in interspecies romance in the wild, but things are known to get freaky in captivity. And when lions mate with tigers, neither species passes on the gene that moderates growth. The result is a hybrid offspring that can grow far larger than either of its parents. In fact the largest feline ever is a liger named Hercules, who tipped the scales at 922 pounds when Guinness weighed him back in 2013. Fortunately, ligers appear only in captivity. None of these overgrown cats has escaped to terrorize townspeople, so far. So, not *technically* wild. But you never know.
Africanized Killer Bees
Before we had murder hornet to fear, we had the killer bees. These hybridized honeybees were born in a laboratory in 1950s Brazil, where a scientist postulated that European bees would produce more honey if crossed with their African relatives. They didn’t, but the experiment did have unforeseen consequences.
It turns out that the African bees have a gene that makes them more aggressive than their European counterparts, and that fit a certain persistent storyline in American culture. When the bees escaped in 1957 it was like a xenophobic fantasy come to life: A horde of Africanized invaders coming straight up through Mexico.
We’ve been hearing about this menace for 50 years. Hollywood even made a movie about it, a bad one, called The Swarm. “It’s more than speculation. It is a prediction,” the trailer announces, as the movie bees mow down trains, helicopters, and flamethrower-wielding troops. But the real killer bees got here decades ago, and it turns out they’re not very dangerous at all, unless you mess with them. If their hives are attacked they’ll unleash a swarming defense. Once riled, they’ve been known to chase intruders up a quarter mile, and it doesn’t matter how fast you run—they’ve even taken down horses. As for humans though, death by Africanized honey bees is relatively rare. One commonly cited statistic claims the hybrid bees have killed about 1,000 people worldwide since escaping the Brazilian lab more than 60 years ago.
Last summer a Tennessee police department warned would-be suspects not to flush their stash down the toilet, lest illicit amphetamines enter the water supply and create wild-eyed meth gators.
“On a more or less serious note: Folks…please don’t flush your drugs m’kay,” said the post from the Loretto Police Department. “Ducks, Geese, and other fowl frequent our treatment ponds and we shudder to think what one all hyped up on meth would do. Furthermore, if it made it far enough we could create meth-gators in Shoal Creek and the Tennessee River down in North Alabama.”
This report was picked up by press on five continents.
A local reporter finally debunked the story, in one of those segments that ends with the whole news team having a good-natured chuckle. Meth gators, it turns out, are fake news. In fact, the original post was just poking fun at nearby Alabama, where local law enforcement had (according to them) recently faced down a “meth-fueled attack squirrel.”
That story was 100 percent real.
Meth-Addled Attack Squirrels
The rodent’s name is Deez Nutz, and he’s a genuine squirrel with a dangerous attitude. Even Mickey Paulk, who raised the squirrel from infancy, concedes that much. The only debate is whether or not the little guy was on meth. Limestone County Sheriff’s deputies say that before they raided Paulk’s house, an informant warned them that Deez Nutz was hopped up on speed and trained to attack.
When the raid went down, the caged critter acted just how you’d expect a squirrel on speed to act, though deputies couldn’t confirm it. “There was no safe way to test the squirrel for meth,” they said in a statement. So they took Deez Nutz outside and let him go.
Paulk was in the wind too. He wasn’t home when the cops came calling, but he did go on Facebook to set the record straight even though he was still on the lam. “He’s a mean m-fer, no doubt. But he’s not a trained attack squirrel, and he’s not on meth,” Paulk announced in the Facebook video, recorded in a darkened bedroom while holding a squirrel. The curtains were drawn.
Paulk explained that he’d doubled back to rescue Deez Nutz after the raid. “I just pulled up and whistled and he jumped his little ass right on my shoulder and come along with me. So the squirrel is safe, y’all.”
And so are we, for now.
Top Photo: An Asian giant hornet in an entomologists’s sample drawer. Via Twitter.