Think you've seen a murder hornet? You probably saw one of these 5 look-alikes instead
SALISBURY, Md. — Read the room, 'murder hornets'! Can't you see society is in no mood for you?
It turns out the hornets may be better at obeying this wish than expected. Asian giant hornets, or 'murder hornets,' have not been documented on the East Coast — though social media is full of people who say they've seen one.
The Asian giant hornet made headlines in early May when The New York Times reported that the insect had, for the first time, entered North America.
Experts who spoke to the Times expressed fears that the invasive hornets would wreak havoc on honeybee populations, not to mention humans — the sting was reported to feel like "hot metal driving into (the) skin."
These hornets are held responsible for 50 deaths a year in Japan, though it should be noted that dozens of bee sting-related deaths also occur in the US each year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Asian giant hornets have almost entirely yellow-orange colored heads, with a dark thorax (the midsection where wings and legs attach) and an abdomen with dark brown and black bands. Their presence in Maryland is "highly unlikely," the Maryland Department of Agriculture tweeted May 4.
Though only a small number of the hornets were ever spotted, and sightings were limited to the Pacific Northwest, the unsettling nickname has inspired Americans from all corners of the country to keep a wary eye out for murder hornets in the months since.
Would-be hornet hunters understandably do not often get a good photo of the insect they suspect of having murderous tendencies.
But because many wasps and hornets look alike, chances are that any alleged murder hornet spottings in areas far from the Pacific Northwest — like the Eastern Shore of Maryland — are simple cases of mistaken identity.
Next time you're bothered by something that buzzes, hums or swarms, take a second look: Chances are, it is one of the following insects.
1) The European hornet
Native to Europe (surprise), the European hornet is the only true hornet commonly found in the United States, according to the North Carolina State University Extension.
These are about twice the size of a wasp and have brown and yellow markings, rather than the traditional black and yellow. The head of European hornets is reddish-brown, becoming yellowish near the face.
European hornet nests are typically built in hollow trees, but they are often found in barns, sheds, attics, and wall voids of houses. The outside of the exposed nest will be covered with coarse, thick, tan, paper-like material fashioned from decayed wood fibers.
One especially distinctive characteristic of the European hornet? Unlike most other stinging insects, European hornets also fly at night.
2) The Eastern cicada killer wasp
Another roughly two-inch-long, flying, buzzing terror, Eastern cicada killer wasps appear as adults in late June or July and are mostly seen visiting flowers or digging burrows in sandy or light soil.
These wasps, also called 'cicada hawks,' have a mostly black abdomen with yellow markings. Their wings have an orange tint.
These are considered a minor pest, as they will not attack you if you leave them alone, according to the Smithsonian. Preying on cicadas, these wasps' value in the food chain "arguably outweighs their 'bad side.'"
Only the female cicada killer wasps have stingers, but these are known to be mild-mannered. The stingerless males, on the other hand, can be territorial, approaching people who enter their zone, according to the University of Kentucky.
3) The carpenter bee
Male carpenter bees will commonly approach humans and buzz loudly. Though not much larger than a bumblebee, carpenter bees that hover and fly close to humans can be unnerving, causing panic.
Building nests in various types of wood, carpenter bees are considered pests because they can weaken manmade structures. However, once again, entomologists say the costs of this behavior are insignificant compared to carpenter bees' beneficial pollination services for fruits, vegetables, legimes and flowers.
Adult carpenter bees are about an inch long and are round and fuzzy. Unlike bumble bees, which are striped yellow and black along their whole bodies, carpenter bees' heads and abdomens are entirely black, and their midsection is yellow.
Male carpenter bees — despite liking to hover in front of your face — don't sting.
4) The elm sawfly
Elm sawflies are not true flies, but are fly-like wasps that could, to the inexperienced eye, resemble a vengeful hornet.
Growing up to an inch long, sawflies are hefty and intimidating, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They have dark wings, blackish-bluish coloring on the back of their abdomen, orange antennae and a white spot at the base of the thorax. They lack the "waist" between abdomen and thorax that most wasps have.
Females have pale, wrap-around stripes that don't quite touch in the middle. Males have massive legs, and their abdomens can be black or red.
Sawflies are named for the female's egg-laying technique, in which she saws a hole in the underside of a leaf in late spring, typically elm. Sawflies also deposit eggs on willows, maples, birches, plums, apples and more.
If captured, adults may buzz and use their powerful spiny legs defensively. However, like other sawflies, this species does not possess a sting.
5) The hummingbird moth
Confusing a hornet with a moth might seem far-fetched, but if one of these two-inch behemoths goes zooming by, there is a reasonable chance of confusion and terror.
Hummingbird moths are widespread in North America. They are plump, with tails that open into a fan shape at the tip, according to the US Forest Service.
Hummingbird moths can be yellow and black, increasing the chance they are mistaken for something that stings. However, they can also be olive green and burgundy.
Because they are moths, they do not sting or bite. In fact, many consider them to be delightful visitors to the garden, where they move from flower to flower pollinating and sipping nectar.
Now, that said...
If you've cross-checked your murder hornet suspect against each of these possibilities and still think you've got a match, there are numerous people out there who would probably like to know about it.
In Maryland, you can send pictures of your insect friend to the Department of Agriculture at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Environmental watchdog reporter Julia Rentsch can be reached at email@example.com.