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Entomologists in Washington state have so far this year destroyed two nests of the Asian giant hornet — nicknamed the “murder hornet” — and are planning to eradicate another nest as they try to wipe out the insects, an invasive species that can massacre honeybees and that first appeared in the Pacific Northwest in 2019.

The Washington State Department of Agriculture on Sept. 11 said on social media that it had found two nests housing the insects, the world’s largest species of hornet, and that it had destroyed one of them. Amber Betts, a department spokesperson, on Sept. 13 said a first nest had been destroyed a few weeks earlier.

“The aim is to eradicate them completely,” she said, adding that the hornets would be considered completely eradicated after “two consecutive years of negative results.”

She added: “Right now we are just kind of doing our best to see how many are out there.”

Asian giant hornets were first reported seen in the United States in December 2019 in Washington state, when a resident of Blaine, a city near the Canadian border, found one of the dead insects. It was handed over to state entomologists, and the hunt for more of the hornets began.

Agriculture officials issued an alert that the hornets could pose a threat to honeybees, whose hives can be wiped out by hornets in hours. The department set up a tip line and links for sightings, relying on the public to report locations, Betts said.

As state officials set out to trap more hornets, they also turned to a service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which provided support in tracking the hornets using radio tags that had been used to study the movements of spotted lantern flies, an invasive species causing problems on the East Coast.

The approach worked. One hornet, affixed with a glued-on tracker, eventually led entomologists to a nest about 8 feet (2.4 meters) up a tree, in a region of forests and farmland roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Vancouver. In October, the state’s Department of Agriculture announced it had destroyed the nest, marking the first time one was eradicated in the United States.

A team plugged the nest with foam, wrapped the tree in plastic and vacuumed out the hornets, the officials said.

Betts said the same techniques were used in the nest removals this year, with a medic at the site in case a hornet stung someone. (The hornet’s stinger is long enough to puncture a beekeeping suit, and its sting has been described in excruciating terms.) Protective gear was used by the crew during the operations, which also involved injecting carbon dioxide to immobilize the hornets, she said.

She added that a queen hornet was removed Saturday.

Betts said the four nests found so far were all in the same general area, within a few miles of one another in north Whatcom County.

Scientists do not know precisely how or when the insects arrived in the United States. The USDA said the hornets could have been introduced into the country through illegal imports of live specimens used for food and medicinal purposes.

The insects’ nickname comes from their violent behavior: They attack and destroy honeybee hives, killing the bees by decapitating them during what entomologists call their “slaughter phase.” They then invade and take over the hives as their own, feeding their young with the bee larvae and pupae.

“While they do not generally attack people or pets, they can attack when threatened,” the state’s Department of Agriculture said in a statement. “Their stinger is longer than that of a honey bee and their venom is more toxic. They can also sting repeatedly.”

For people with allergies, the sting can be fatal.

The hornets are distinguished by their yellow heads and can be nearly 2 inches (5 centimeters) long with stingers about 6 millimeters long, or about one-quarter of an inch. They can wipe out entire hives of bees, which serve as important pollinators for crops.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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