Concerns about rising anti-Asian prejudice heightened the urgency of naming Asian giant hornets a new name.

murder hornets
Northern giant hornet is a new, mild common name chosen by insect scientists in the United States for what has been sensationalized as a murder hornet. Until recently, less sensational scientists referred to it as the Asian giant hornet. MUSEUM COLLECTIONS: HYMENOPTERA, USDA APHIS PPQ, HANNA ROYALS

What was previously known as a “murder hornet” or “Asian giant hornet” now has a more official, perhaps kinder, name. The northern giant hornet has arrived.

The Entomological Society of America, or ESA, declared that as the preferred plain-English common name for the large, orange-and-black Vespa mandarinia on July 25. The decision is as much about people as it is about hornets.

It’s a celebrity among insects. By 2019, the species had made its way across the Pacific and was nesting in Canada, most likely also on the US side of the border. The hornet queens were as long as a human thumb, and the hornets’ late summer raiding parties slaughtered entire hives of adult honeybees to steal the chubby larvae as wasp food. V. mandarinia was designated as the doomsday spirit insect at the start of COVID-19 (SN: 5/29/20). There have been no confirmed sightings of the hornet in Washington, the state at the center of the buzz in the United States, as of late July, but trapping efforts are underway.

There was no entry for the species on the ESA’s list of preferred common names back then. “Murder hornet” was far too tabloid; hornets do not hunt humans. Frontline scientists in the Pacific Northwest dealing with invaders coined the term “Asian giant hornet.”

Nonetheless, Chris Looney of the Washington State Department of Agriculture in Olympia was troubled by the terms “Asian” and “giant.” When proposing an alternative name to ESA, he wrote that “Asian” is “at best neutral and uninformative.” All 22 Vespa hornet species have a portion of their range in Asia. So mentioning the continent does little to clarify which species is being discussed.

At worst, Looney argued, connecting Asia and a nervous-making insect feeds racist fears. He expressed concern about a recent “increase in hate crimes and other heinous behavior directed at people of Asian descent in countries around the world.” ” He has heard numerous complaints about the hornet being “another” unwanted “thing from China,” he said. (The current invaders are from other parts of Asia.)

With this in mind, the ESA has launched the Better Common Names Project to combat racism in names (SN: 8/25/21). This effort resulted in the retirement of a cringe-worthy old name for what is now the spongy moth (SN: 3/10/22). Looney suggested that a hornet’s common name avoid the association of “Asian” with “a large insect that inspires fear and is being eradicated.”

The problem with simply calling it “giant” is that other hornets can grow to be enormous as well. Vespa soror, a mostly subtropical species, was discovered as a large, single-hornet surprise in Vancouver in 2019. These hornets are about the same size as V. mandarinia and will also mass-kill honeybees.

Both size and geography are fine-tuned in the new name declaration. V. mandarinia is now known as the “northern giant hornet,” and V. soror is known as the “southern giant hornet,” based on their rough distribution in their native Asian range.

The name game

When the native ranges of two massive hornet species are compared, it’s easy to see why the Entomological Society of America chose “northern giant hornet” as the common name for Vespa mandarinia, which had invaded British Columbia and Washington state by 2019. Yellow dots represent reports of that species in a more northern range of Asia (darker yellow indicates more abundant reports) than the span of red-orange stars for the also newly named “southern giant hornet” (V. soror).

murder hornets

This decision is official in the sense that it was made by a relevant institution, but ESA can only compel the use of the name in its own publications. Other organizations may choose to follow ESA rules, but there is no centralized authority in the free-for-all whirlpool of common names. A field guide writer can select from folk traditions and languages, or simply make up names.

“I ignore common names anyway,” says James Carpenter, a hornet specialist at New York’s American Museum of Natural History. “It’s an amusing conceit to think they can be controlled.”

What scientists care about are Latin names, and ESA’s rethink has no bearing on the northern giant’s formal scientific name, V. mandarinia. It was published in 1852, and “in fact, it is a reference to Asia,” says Jessica Ware, an evolutionary biologist and entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. She is the president of ESA and a staunch supporter of better common names. The scientific names, on the other hand, adhere to strict guidelines overseen by an international governing body. Making changes “will be difficult if people decide to do it,” she says.

Source: science news

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