An invasive species of hornet native to Southeast Asia has been spotted in the U.S. for the first time in Georgia, where officials say the insect poses a threat to honeybees and the state’s agricultural industry.
A living yellow-legged hornet, formerly known as the Asian hornet, was discovered by a beekeeper in Savannah earlier this month, the Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) said.
The hornet poses a "significant threat" to native pollinators, which will affect Georgia’s number one industry, GDA Commissioner Tyler Harper told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday.
"The hornets feed on a variety of insects, including honeybees and other native pollinators," Harper said. "If allowed to establish… this pest could threaten honeybee production, native pollinators and the agricultural industry in the state of Georgia."
The yellow-legged hornet is described as a social wasp species. The insect constructs egg-shaped paper nests above ground, typically in trees, which can grow large enough to house an average of 6,000 workers, according to officials.
While it is native to tropical and subtropical areas of Southeast Asia, the yellow-legged hornet has already established itself in most of Europe, parts of the Middle East, and non-native parts of Asia, the department said.
Dr. Keith Delaplane, a honeybee specialist at the University of Georgia College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences, called the invasive species a "grave concern" to beekeepers.
The yellow-legged hornet "is a voracious predator of honeybees," Delaplane said, adding that the insect’s nickname is the "bee hawk" because of its agility and how it can swoop down and capture honeybees in the air.
"In this manner, a few individuals can depopulate an aviary in a matter of days" he said of the hornet.
While considered "an aggressive problem" for beekeepers and the agricultural industry, Delaplane said he does not believe there is a serious threat to humans.
Data from China, according to Delaplane, shows 54 human deaths over two years in the country of over a billion people.
Officials have asked the public to report any sightings of the yellow-legged hornet to the GDA or U.S. Department of Agriculture.