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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Murder Hornets Nature Doc Disguised as a True-Crime Show

To be perfectly clear: Insects aren’t evil. They don’t have morals or ethical guidelines. They cannot act with malice. They certainly cannot commit murder. That said, there’s a reason why the Asian giant hornet was nicknamed the “murder hornet” in the North American press and not, say, “gentle sweetie bee.” These apex predators look like they flew in from the Carboniferous era. They can massacre colonies of honeybees in a matter of hours, ripping the petite pollinators’ torsos in half. Their venom causes searing pain in humans at best and death at worst. And when they were discovered in Washington state last spring, the invasion sounded downright demonic. It’s fitting, then, that director Michael Paul Stephenson’s new film Attack of the Murder Hornets plays like a spooky true-crime tale.


The documentary, currently streaming on Discovery+, opens with some spectacular carnage. An amiable beekeeper named Ted McFall provides a gruesome look at what happened to his honeybee hives when the hornets showed up in his Whatcom County, Washington, bee farm: wholesale slaughter. McFall chokes up talking about the unexpected deaths. As a professional beekeeper who makes his living selling products like honey and beeswax, the appearance of the Asian giant hornet on his property was an existential threat, and he couldn’t help but take losing his bees personally. Attack of the Murder Hornets follows McFall as he joins a loose alliance of beekeepers and scientists in the Pacific Northwest who hunt for the nests of these invasive insects, racing to remove them from the local ecosystem before they wreak havoc.

Another member of this mission is Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologist Chris Looney, a dedicated, loquacious scientist who treks through the woods with a net, undaunted by the long-shot nature of his quest. Although the team lays traps, their breakthrough comes from a tiny bit of high-tech gear: Roboticist Vikram Iyer realizes that tracking devices created for robotic flies might also work if attached to the Asian giant hornet, so the gang commences with capturing individual hornets and gluing trackers to their abdomens until one finally leads them back to the nest. Although they encounter a series of roadblocks, Stephenson’s subjects are able to capture a large portion of the hornets, including many young queen specimens, which would have spread the problem all over the region had they grown up and started their own nests. Science doesn’t totally save the day, but it staves off disaster.

Stephenson’s documentary moves at a thriller’s brisk clip, and he’s so immersed in the ad hoc murder hornet detective squad that people speak candidly to him. He captures their pursuit from an intimate vantage, picking up quiet moments such as a local child crying at the sight of a hornet whose wings have been accidentally glued together in an attempt to attach the robot tracker. And it’s a passionate, engaging group: They’re all out in the forest guided by either altruistic hopes for science or a real crusader’s zeal. (“If we’re unsuccessful at getting rid of this murder hornet, God help us all,” McFall says.) The story is a compelling ecological race against time, with real stakes: When honeybees are in danger, the entire food chain is also at risk.

With so much built-in drama, ambiance, and character, Attack of the Murder Hornets didn’t need to lean on its nature-doc-as-crime-doc gimmick as hard as it does, with its ominous soundtrack and horror-movie graphics. Most of the scientists interviewed are careful to note that the insects themselves are not to blame for following their instincts. (McCall, however, laments that he cannot behead each and every hornet himself.) Beekeeper Conrad Berube, who eradicated the first nest discovered in North America, is brought in to help with the mission; though he favors vests embroidered with bees and is clearly reverent toward insects, he’s called the “trigger man” since he has experience destroying these habitats. Yet he holds no animus toward the hornets he feels obliged to destroy. “Look how beautiful she is,” he says when he sees a queen. “There’s a certain pang of being involved in its eradication.” He explains that he helps to kill the creatures only to protect the ecosystem.

The film’s crime-doc framing nonetheless largely treats the Asian giant hornet as a monstrous force. Predators like this are often anthropomorphized as bad actors, and people are taught to fear and loathe them. Sharks, for example, have suffered greatly because of their fearsome reputation. With a nickname as salacious as “murder hornet,” the Asian giant hornet has already been turned into a bug-sized boogeyman in the popular imagination. Even though Attack of the Murder Hornets is a catchy title, the documentary would be stronger if it spent less time hyping up how malevolent and hazardous the insects are. Their status as an invasive species is enough of a compelling threat without cloaking them in horror tropes.

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