Foiled Again: Murder Hornet Eludes Washington State Scientists

Researchers have lost track of an Asian giant hornet they were following — a stinging setback in the pursuit to eradicate an invasive species that threatens to decimate North American bee populations.

Washington state officials said this week that they had successfully trapped a live giant hornet, also known as the “murder hornet,” and fitted a tracking device to its belly using dental floss. But not long after they released the female hornet into the wild, the trail went cold.

“It actually flies a lot faster than we can run through 10-foot-high blackberry hedges, so it out-flew us,” Sven-Erik Spichiger, the chief entomologist for Washington state’s Department of Agriculture, told NPR’s Weekend Edition.

Spichiger is among a team of scientists with WSDA who are racing to wrangle the insects with the hope that the hornets will lead them to their nests — so scientists can destroy them. Their mission is time-sensitive: With winter hibernation around the corner, this is the time of year when the insects burrow underground and spawn more hornets.

Asian giant hornets pose a severe threat to honeybees — a species already under siege from pesticides, parasites, habitat loss and climate change — and other pollinators critical to the human food supply. Murder hornets earned their nickname for their ruthless habit of decapitating entire colonies of honeybees.

“Only a couple of hornets can slaughter an entire healthy honeybee hive in just a matter of a few hours,” Spichiger said.

Native to East Asia, the predatory insect was first spotted in North America last year. Most sightings have occurred along the Washington state and British Columbia border since then, but they’re still rare.

Finding and attaching a tracking device to the live predator has been no easy feat. WSDA staff made their first attempt to track a live hornet on Sept. 30, trying out super glue, double-sided tacky tape, and floss, all on the same insect. But the glue didn’t dry fast enough, and in the process, stuck to the hornet’s wings, preventing it from flying.

So far, floss has proved the most promising adherent, which Spichiger said “works just like wearing a belt with a transponder on it.”

In their second effort, now just using floss on a different captured hornet, the team let the hornet feast on strawberry jam to build strength, before releasing it back into the wild. Off the hornet flew, eventually heading into a forest of blackberry bushes where they lost the signal.

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But they’ll try and try again.

“We know we’re very close to it,” he said. “So, it’s just a matter of time and just keep plugging away and working at it.”

Spichiger is optimistic about the team’s latest development: switching to a tracking device with greater range and a longer battery life.

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Are we better off than we were four years ago? That is the question we normally ask ourselves when a president seeks reelection, so we’ve been asking people with deep expertise in different subjects and different perspectives to answer this question. And we’re going to begin today’s program by putting it to Ambassador John Bolton.

He served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, among other high-level posts in Republican administrations. Then, in 2018 to 2019, he served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump. But his departure from this White House came, as did that of many others, with unpleasantness, which he recounts along with his broader perspective on how the Trump administration operates in his memoir, “The Room Where It Happened,” which came out earlier this year.

We want to mention that we caught up with Ambassador Bolton yesterday. We were expecting to discuss a wide range of issues with him. However, due to technical issues and limited time, Ambassador Bolton abruptly ended the interview before I could pose follow-up questions. So we’re airing what we could cover, beginning with the central question driving this segment – is America safer than it was four years ago?

JOHN BOLTON: I think, unfortunately, it’s not safer – which is not to say that there haven’t been some important positive decisions made and some important accomplishments, like a dramatic increase in the budget for the Department of Defense over the painfully low levels of the Obama years. And there have been a number of decisions that I think have been entirely correct – getting out of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, getting out of the INF treaty.

The trouble is, there has been no overarching strategy in the Trump administration so that the series of decisions that h ave been made really have not followed a pattern that leads us over a sustained period of time to a stronger position internationally. And I think that is a fundamental failing in the administration’s approach that contributes to the general conclusion, netted out across all the different issue areas, that we’re not in a stronger position today than we were when the administration took office.

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MARTIN: I want to dig into Iran a bit more. But what would you say is the chief area of weakness? What is the area that stands out to you as an example of why we are not safer? Is it the general lack of coherence? Is it the inability of, say, allies to sort of trust where the U.S. is going to rely on their support and – traditional allies? Would it be that? Or is it something else, something specific?

BOLTON: Well, at the strategic level, there are two main threats to the United States. One is China, the other’s Russia – because of their nuclear capabilities, among other things, but in China’s case, because it is the existential question that faces the United States in the 21st century. And with respect to both of those countries, we have no strategy. Just to take China as an example, for three years, the president tried to make a trade deal with China. With the advent of the coronavirus, he’s taken a harder line because China’s concealed what the origins of the disease were and what its effects were. But after the election, if the president prevails, he could easily junk the sanctions and the tariffs, go right back to looking for the big trade deal all purely based on his own gut instinct.

There are other examples of this. Our non-proliferation strategy, for example, with respect to Iran and North Korea, have produced positive results in neither of those cases. The threat of international terrorism not only remains but, with the president’s failed agreement in Afghanistan, liable to bring the Taliban back to power. I think we’re actually regressing there. So these are all problems that are accentuated by the president’s ad hoc, almost random decision-making.

As I say, it produces decisions that I do agree with from time to time, but it does not produce a coherent, effective, sustained policy, which is what you need to be successful in national security.

MARTIN: I mean, I’d love to talk more about China, but I do want to talk about the current pandemic. In 2018, The Washington Post reported that Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, the NSC official in charge of the country’s pandemic response, left under your watch. This was part of a restructuring that you organized. And his departure, quote, according to the Post reporting and other subsequent reporting, “meant that no senior administration official is now focused solely on global health security.”

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What was your vision for that? I mean, did you not see biological threats as a priority? What was meant to replace it?

BOLTON: It was precisely because I saw biological threats as a priority that I combined that directorate with the directorate dealing with weapons of mass destruction, which include nuclear and chemical weapons and biological weapons. I felt that would actually strengthen the NSC’s ability to deal with potential pandemics.

And in fact, as was reported later by The New York Times in April of this year, it was in early January that NSC staff first raised the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. And as Bob Woodward reported in his book, it was my successor as national security adviser and his deputy who raised with Trump in late January of this year the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. So, in fact, I would say, with all due modesty, I think the streamlining reform worked. And it was the NSC, along with the Centers for Disease Control, very early on – very early on – that raised the potential danger of the pandemic.

The problem was not the boxes and lines in the staff of the National Security Council. The problem was the empty chair behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. The president didn’t want to hear anything bad about his friend Xi Jinping, anything that might adversely affect the trade deal he was trying to negotiate with China, or most importantly of all, anything that might adversely affect the U.S. economy, his ticket to reelection.

MARTIN: That was Ambassador John Bolton, former national security adviser under President Donald Trump. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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