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Murder Hornets Get a New Name, and for Good Reasons

You can still call them murder hornets if you want, but they now have a different official nickname.

Murder hornet with a tracker attached to it.
Northern giant hornets have invaded parts of Canada and Washington state in the US.
Washington State Department of Agriculture

A lot of insects have common names that make them easier to refer to than their hard-to-pronounce official science names. Vespa mandarinia, widely referred to as the "murder hornet," was known by the common name Asian giant hornet. The Entomological Society of America hopes that moniker will become a thing of the past. 

On Monday, the ESA announced that Vespa mandarinia has been given the new common name of northern giant hornet. The organization hadn't previously adopted a formal common name for the insects. ESA said the new name will be more accurate and will avoid feeding into anti-Asian prejudice

The hornets, native to Asia, have sparked both fear and fascination since appearing in parts of Canada and in the state of Washington in the US. The hornets are large and are known to decapitate their bee victims. Scientists are concerned they could devastate already fragile honeybee populations. In some rare cases, they have been deadly to humans. 

The "northern" part of the name points to the hornet's natural range in the northern parts of Asia. "Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination," said ESA president Jessica Ware in a statement.

Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologist Chris Looney, who has been working to eradicate the hornet from the US, made the name proposal along with new common names for two other hornets, Vespa soror (southern giant hornet) and Vespa velutina (yellow-legged hornet). The southern giant hornet is a close relative of the northern giant hornet.

The renaming meets new guidelines adopted by ESA in 2021. Those guidelines ban racial and ethnic names and discourage geographic region names, especially for invasive species. 

ESA is asking researchers, government agencies, the media and the public to adopt the new name. The popular use of "murder hornet" may not readily fade, but the new sobriquet is already catching on. I just looked up "asian giant hornet" and Google delivered the name "northern giant hornet" at the top of my search page.