The answer hinges on a peculiarity of the Japanese language.
In the Old Testament, God wrought ten plagues upon humanity. In modern times, we have our hands full with just one: covid-19. Or so we thought, until it was reported, in the May 2nd edition of the Times, that a new pestilence is afoot. “Murder hornets” with “mandibles shaped like spiked shark fins,” we were told, were descending upon North America from their native habitat of Asia. Within twenty-four hours, the hashtag #murderhornets was trending on Twitter, fuelled by all the excitement befitting what sounds like a newly discovered species of homicidal Pokémon. Sensing a rare non-virus viral story, major media outlets ranging from the Washington Post to Fox News pounced. They began amplifying the insect threat with their own details, many of them simply rephrased from the original piece; by the middle of last week, Jimmy Fallon was interviewing a “murder hornet” in costume on “The Tonight Show.” (“Look, we’re just regular old bees who happen to make things fall asleep forever.”)
This is a familiar story of how trending topics drive the modern news cycle, but it’s also a testament to the power of a catchy label. Murder hornet is the nickname bestowed upon Vespa mandarinia, the already formidable-sounding Asian giant hornet, which is native to large swaths of East Asia. The Japanese call it ōsuzumebachi: literally, giant sparrow-hornet. They aren’t actually sparrow-size; the biggest specimens come in at just under two inches long. But that is cold comfort when one hears their menacing, resonant buzz approaching, which is something that occurs with disconcerting regularity if you spend time outdoors during the summer months in Japan.
The monsoons and humidity that can make Japan difficult to bear during the summer also make it a haven for insects and other creepy-crawlies. Some of them grow to truly enormous proportions. To the sparrow-hornet you can add startlingly large cockroaches, enormous orb-weaver spiders, and centipedes that can reach six inches in length. So, too, palm-size rhinoceros beetles and stag beetles. Unlike the dreaded hornet and its ilk, these gentle giants are beloved traditional playthings. The males use their horns to wrestle each other away from sources of food and from potential mates. Collected by children and squared off in sumo-style matches, these giant armored beetles provided the cultural template for the virtual battles that Japanese video-game designers would perfect in the eighties and nineties.
I know these things both because I love bugs enough to have flirted with majoring in entomology during my university studies, and because I have lived in Tokyo for close to twenty years. Even in the city, one has occasional run-ins with giant hornets during the summer months. Here, they are rightfully feared even without nicknames, and incidents involving them regularly make headlines. Like all wasps and other hornets, and unlike honeybees, giant hornets have smooth stingers that allow them to attack repeatedly. The Asian giant hornet’s barb packs an especially potent poison, and, every year, dozens of Japanese lose their lives as a result of anaphylactic shock. Asian giant hornets tend to nest in hidden places, such as the hollows of trees or ground burrows. Removing, or even simply approaching, these hives is dangerous work. Their stingers easily penetrate standard beekeeping suits, necessitating thick protective gear and specialized equipment such as vacuums to suck the creatures out of the air as they mass to protect their homes.
For all their ferocity, however, I had never once heard them referred to as “murder hornets” in Japanese. The first time I saw the name was, as for many Americans, when I read it in the Times that weekend. The phrase immediately piqued my interest. The closest analogue I knew, satsujin bachi, is simply “killer hornet,” Japan’s matter-of-fact equivalent of the English-language “killer bee.” Even that usage was largely relegated to tabloid news and variety shows. I had never heard a hornet called a “murderer”—how could it be? A murder requires premeditation. We don’t speak of bears or tigers murdering people. Why, suddenly, hornets?
I had a guess. Linguistically, the common Japanese word satsujin—written with the characters “kill” and “person”—does not clearly distinguish between a person being “murdered” or “killed.” This ambiguity means that if one looks up satsujin in a Japanese-English dictionary, they will be presented with a list of options that includes the words “murder,” “manslaughter,” and “killer.” It is up to the translator to select the proper word based on context. I strongly suspected that this linguistic subtlety had been lost in translation. For, as terrifying as the giant hornet may be, I have never heard anyone in Japan portray it as possessing homicidal intent. Curious, I approached Junichi Takahashi, a Japanese entomologist, who was quoted in the Times’ original report. When I explained my mission, it seemed that Professor Takahashi didn’t want to stir the hornet’s nest with another interview, but he did aver that “giant, killer, and murder are general names used by the media.”
Not everyone is happy about the dramatic nicknaming of the creatures. “They are not ‘murder hornets.’ They are just hornets,” the Washington Agriculture Department entomologist Chris Looney told the Washington Post. “It’s kind of a sensational term,” agreed the Texas A&M entomologist Molly Keck in an interview with a San Antonio television station. The linking of the foreign-born insects with a scary word, in this case “murder,” skirts dangerously close to uncomfortable territory: those of a certain age will recall the “Africanized killer bee” scare of the seventies, with all of its race-baiting overtones, and, more recently, the Trump Administration’s strenuous efforts to relabel the coronavirus as a specifically “Chinese” virus.
The phrase “murder hornets” leapt into the lexicon mere weeks ago, but its rapid percolation throughout the mediasphere evokes the way new dangers spread so fluidly through a globalized modern world. The ōsuzumebachi hornets have troubled the residents of Japan since time immemorial. That these tiny terrors have suddenly appeared on the American side of the Pacific is only the latest curveball from Mother Nature, and another reminder that the borders we surround ourselves with, whether lines drawn on a map or nicknames given to things that frighten us, are meaningless to natural threats like insects or viruses.