The ESA will officially adopt the term “northern giant hornet” as the common name for Vespa mandarinia. The change was implemented to avoid the use a potentially stigmatizing geographic reference for the invasive species, while also more accurately describing the insect’s origins.
In recent years, the northern giant hornet has gained a menacing reputation. Since 2019, the species has been spotted in parts of the Pacific Northwest in both the U.S. and Canada.
Their arrival is concerning because they have an appetite for bees. The nickname comes from how viciously they hunt down their prey, going as far to decapitate them. Both wild and farmed bees in the U.S. have been struggling with population decline and high rates of colony loss, which is making a new invasive predator more dangerous for the species.
Scientists are hoping that it’s possible to eventually eradicate Vespa mandarinia before the hornets can become firmly established in North America.
“But whatever ends up happening, these bugs will undoubtedly be on people’s minds for the foreseeable future,” according to Gizmodo.
Experts with the ESA wanted to pick a more fitting label for its first official recognition of the insect as part of its ongoing Better Common Names Project.
Many scientific and public health organizations have been trying to steer away from naming animals and germs after locations or other terms that could be associated with ethnic or racial groups. Historically, such names have stoked discriminatory or xenophobic attitudes, and they often aren’t very useful to boot. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which didn’t actually originate in Spain.
In light of the growing rise of anti-Asian sentiment within the U.S., the ESA didn’t want to endorse the old common name, especially in the context of it being an invasive species.
All 22 known species of hornets are native to or very common in Asia, for instance, so it hardly provided much relevant context for the term, and “murder hornet” was never up for serious consideration either. “Northern giant hornet” is a reference to its geographical range in Asia.
The ESA has also decided to adopt new common names for the very closely related species Vespa soror, now known as the “southern giant hornet,” and another hornet species Vespa velutina, now referred to as the “yellow-legged hornet.” The proposal for the name changes was submitted by Dr. Chris Looney, one of the researchers at the Washington State Department of Agriculture trying to track and stop V. mandarinia.
“Common names are an important tool for entomologists to communicate with the public about insects and insect science,” said ESA President Dr. Jessica Ware in a statement provided to Gizmodo. “Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination.”
The ESA has called for other scientists, government organizations and media outlets to use the new term for these invasive bugs moving forward, while the Entomological Society of Canada has officially adopted the use of northern and southern giant hornet as well.