Entomologists in the United States and Canada have changed the common name of the “Asian giant hornet” to “northern giant hornet” to avoid reinforcing discrimination against the Asian community.
Although the “Asian” descriptor in the species’ former common name was “geographically accurate” and not “at all pejorative,” it could still unintentionally reinforce anti-Asian sentiments since the northern giant hornet tends to inspire fear, Chris Looney, the author of the species’ name change proposal, said.
“In my personal experience I have heard statements like ‘another damn thing from China” multiple times (irrespective of the fact that the hornets detected in North America likely originated in Japan or Korea),” Looney, an entomologist at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, wrote.
The ESA adopted new guidelines in 2021 for choosing acceptable common names for insects, especially for invasive species such as Vespa mandarinia. Geographic references and ethnic and racial groups can no longer be used in names as they “might stoke fear.”
“Common names are an important tool for entomologists to communicate with the public about insects and insect science,” ESA President Jessica Ware said in the recent press release. “Northern giant hornet is both scientifically accurate and easy to understand, and it avoids evoking fear or discrimination.”
“I don’t want my Asian American or Pacific Islander colleagues, friends and family to have any negative connotations with invasive or pest species that might be used against them in a negative way,” Ware said.
The invasive insects previously referred to as “murder hornets,” a term derided by many entomologists, started trending in 2020 after a New York Times article revealed that the hornets could potentially decimate bee populations.
Originally from East and South Asia, the species was given its violent nickname due to its tendency to launch “aggressive group attacks [that] can expose victims to doses of toxic venom equivalent to that of a venomous snake,” according to Jun-ichi Takahashi, a researcher at Kyoto Sangyo University. Around 50 people die every year in Japan from being stung by the hornets.
Since northern giant hornets are considered a threat to bees, eradication efforts have begun in Washington state and British Columbia, Canada. A huge nest of the invasive insects, which contained 1,500 of them “in various stages of development,” was eradicated in Washington state in August 2021.