An Asian giant hornet from Japan is held on a pin by Sven Spichiger, an entomologist with the Washington state Department of Agriculture, is seen in Olympia, Washington. Credit: Ted S. Warren | AP

There are no Asian giant hornets — the so-called “murder hornets” that have been making headlines this year — in Maine. But there is a lookalike hornet that’s leading to reports of sightings here and around New England every time murder hornets are in the national news, state agricultural officals said.

What people are seeing isn’t the Asian giant hornet, according to Gary Fish, state horticulturist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Instead, they are seeing European giant hornets, a more benign and bit smaller species that’s been in this region since the early 1800s

“Every time there is a published report about murder hornets [the state apiarist] gets a lot of calls from people who think they have seen them,” Fish said. “This past summer a few people posted images on social media of things they thought were Asian giant hornets but none of them were.”

This past week officials with the Washington Department of Agricutlrue removed the first nest of murder hornets confirmed in the United States. News of that event likely sparked two or three recent calls Fish said his department has gotten this week. He said his counterparts in New Hampshire have also reported getting a greater number of calls this week about murder hornet sightings which have turned out to be European giant hornets.

Murder hornets can be confused with European giant hornets, which are in New England. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry

The European giant hornet does resemble the Asian giant hornet but is about a half an inch smaller. It’s thorax has a reddish-brown marking and the abdomen has tear-drop shaped black marks.

The Asian giant hornet is 1 1/2 to two inches long with a large, orange head. It has no markings on the thorax but does have alternating bands of dark brown and orange on its abdomen. An adult murder hornet can have the wingspan of a small hummingbird.

Most importantly, while the European giant hornet does eat other insects, it is not a predator of honey bees like the Asian giant hornet.

The Asian giant hornet got its murder hornet nickname beause it only takes a few of them to destroy a honey bee hive in must a matter of hours. They kill the bees by decapitating them. They then take over the hive and feed the honey bee’s larvae to their own young. Murder hornets will also eat other wasps.

The European giant hornet, on the other hand, prefers a meal of caterpillars, Fish said.

“European hornets are really kind of beneficial,” Fish said. “They also scavenge so they help clean up decaying matter.”

Neither giant hornet species is considered particularly aggressive toward humans, but both are capable of stinging multiple times and will attack if threatened. They are not venomous, but enough stings on the human body can cause a severe allergic reaction. The sting of the Asian giant hornet in particular is very painful, according to Fish.

The Asian giant hornet will defend their nest against any threat or intruder.

“It’s very unlikely there would be Asian giant hornets in Maine,” Fish said. “But we always want to hear from people if they see something unusual.”

The best way to report any sightings of any unusual insect is through bugwatch@maine.gov. The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry also has a webpage devoted to the Asian giant hornet and how it compares to the European giant hornet.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.