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caption: Washington State Department of Agriculture workers, wearing protective suits and working in pre-dawn darkness illuminated with red lamps, vacuum a nest of Asian giant hornets from a tree Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Blaine, Wash. 
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Washington State Department of Agriculture workers, wearing protective suits and working in pre-dawn darkness illuminated with red lamps, vacuum a nest of Asian giant hornets from a tree Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Blaine, Wash.
Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

They found the first murder hornet nest, but the queen stayed hidden

It was a bitter cold morning on Saturday near the Canadian border.

Scientists with the Washington state Department of Agriculture approached a tree on private property near the Canadian border.

In the tree, eight to 10 feet up, was a murder hornet nest.

Asian giant hornets – also known as murder hornets – are dangerous to Washington state’s apple crop, or to any crop, really, that depends on honeybees for pollination. Murder hornets can take out a beehive in a matter of hours.

This type of hornet attacks honeybee hives in the fall, so timing was of the essence. Researchers said they believe there could be other nests, but that they are optimistic they can prevent the hornets from getting a foothold in the U.S. and Canada.

The scientists pulled on thick white suits; in them, they resembled characters from Star Wars. They’d bought the suits off Amazon, not knowing if they would work.

They wrapped the tree in plastic and lifted up a modified shop vac to suck out the hornets – the largest type of hornet in the world.

But Sven-Erik Spichiger, one of the researchers, said they ran into a problem. The hornets weren’t coming out. It was too cold.

“We started hitting the side of the tree with a 2x4 just to kind of get them excited, and that did seem to work, they started pouring out then,” Spichiger said.

Eighty five hornets came out, to join the thirteen collected earlier. They slid into a Plexiglas tube built into the shop vac hose.

Not among them, however, was the queen. The scientists believe she was suffocated by the CO2 that was pumped into the crevice after the other hornets were vacuumed out. They do not believe she would have emerged to defend her nest.

“We believe this was a new queen – who had overwintered as a mated queen,” manager Sven-Erik Spichiger said. “It could only have been in this location, based on its biology, for a year.”

Of the hornets sucked out, several are going alive to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for testing, to see what chemicals may be used to lure them into traps. Some will be washed down, and the wash water will be analyzed for pheromones. Some will be flash frozen in a negative 80-degree freezer to begin work on the genome.

The remaining dead hornets will be pinned and mounted and sent to insect collections – to help agricultural agents identify them in the wild.

Private collectors have also requested samples, but those requests will be denied, Spichiger said. The scientific demand for murder hornets, dead or alive, is just too high.

Meanwhile, the tree will be cut down on Wednesday as the researchers look for larvae and the queen.

And they will wait to hear of more hornet sightings so they may track other nests.