March 8, 2021
by Carla Hay
“Attack of the Murder Hornets”
Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson
Culture Representation: The documentary “Attack of the Murder Hornets” features a predominantly white group of people (with one of Indian heritage and one of Native American heritage) who were involved in some way in the 2020 high-profile case of tracking down a deadly Asian giant hornet nest in Washington state.
Culture Clash: Handling this problem takes the work of private citizens and the government, which sometimes conflict with each other.
Culture Audience: “Attack of the Murder Hornets” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in nature/environmental documentaries that are told in an engaging, storytelling style.
The documentary “Attack of the Murder Hornets” is styled very much like a true-crime documentary about authorities trying to track down a serial killer. But instead of a human murderer that’s being hunted, it’s a pack of Asian giant hornets that can massacre thousands of bees at a time. You don’t have to be a scientist or someone who normally watches nature documentaries to enjoy this movie, because it’s told in a very appealing way that anyone can understand.
Directed by Michael Paul Stephenson, “Attack of the Murder Hornets” gives a brief overview of why these hornets, which have been nicknamed “murder hornets,” are dangerous for the environment. Asian giant hornets can wipe out entire colonies of bees, by biting off the heads of bees and eating their torsos. Bees are necessary for the pollination that helps keep the environment healthy and productive. These hornets don’t just sting; they also release poisonous venom. And yes, humans can die from a serious attack by these hornets.
No one really knows how the hornets got from Asia to North America, but enough of them have been found that governments have put together task forces to eradicate the hornets before these deadly insects can cause a serious plague. “Attack of the Murder Hornets” focuses on one such “hornet hunt” that took place in Blaine, Washington, in 2020. The documentary is riveting and insightful in showing how everything was planned and how the task force dealt with some unexpected setbacks.
“Attack of the Murder Hornets” begins by showing an example of the type of damage that Asian giant hornets can cause. Ted McFall, a beekeeper in Blaine, is interviewed about the time in December 2019, when he got the shock of his life: He found about 60,000 of his honey bees (including the queen bee) dead. All of the bees’ heads were bitten off.
As McFall tells it, he didn’t know what to think at first. Was it a cruel prank? Was it some kind of freak accident? Or was it an animal attack? McFall, whose father was a beekeeper and passed on the family business to him, comments in the documentary about how he felt about seeing so many of his bees dead: “It’s kind of like finding a family pet or maybe a family member that got killed, and you have no idea who did it or what did it or what the heck happened.”
McFall gets choked up and emotional when he thinks of this devastating loss. He remembers the reaction of his wife Dorothy, who has a business selling arts and crafts made from beeswax: She said, “It was like a murder scene.” And just like anyone who experiences this kind of loss, Ed McFall wanted to find out what happened and punish the perpetrators.
It wasn’t long before Ed McFall got the answer to the mystery. That same month, a Blaine resident named Jeff Kornelis, who lives two miles from what the documentary calls the “murder scene,” found a dead Asian giant hornet on his property. According to what Kornelis says in the documentary, he took a photo of the hornet, posted it on Reddit, and asked people if they knew what this mystery insect was.
He was advised to take this information to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and the Washington Invasive Species Council (WISC). WISC referred the case to WSDA. The documentary includes interviews with WSDA employees, such as hornet hotline operator Jessica LaBelle, chief entomologist Sven-Erik Spichiger and lab technician Quin Baine.
Spichiger remembers the first time he saw the hornet that was found on Kornelis’ property, he was taken aback by the large size of the hornet: “It was quite shocking because it looked like a child’s toy. It was so much larger than the other hornets that we dealt with.”
The documentary also interviews Japanese scientist Ryouta Sakamoto, who talks about the deadly effects that Asian giant hornets can have on humans and other animals if the population of these hornets is not kept under control. Sakamoto mentions that bees in Japan have learned how to kill these hornets on their own (by surrounding the hornets and causing the bees’ body heat to cook the hornets alive), but bees in North America have not learned how to defend themselves against Asian giant hornets.
Another beekeeper named Ruthie Danielsen, who lives six miles from the McFall family, heard about the bee massacre and became alarmed that the hornets would kill other bees in the area, including her own. She and Eric McFall decided to join forces when they found out that government agencies were too underfunded and understaffed to take care of the problem. Danielsen and other beekeepers in the area began setting up their own homemade traps specifically for the hornets. (Rancid rice water is a popular lure.)
Danielsen says in the documentary that taking a grassroots, private-citizen approach to the problem was not only necessary but also in her nature: “I don’t think it’s okay to say, ‘Let someone else take care of it.'” She formed a task force to deal with Asian giant hornets and implemented a system where people could volunteer to drop off dead Asian giant hornets at a designated place. Many of the hornets were deliberately trapped, while others were not. The dead hornets were then given to WSDA for research.
Also interviewed in the documentary is New York Times reporter Mike Barker, who broke the story in the newspaper about the Asian giant hornet being found in Washington state. The story became international news to the point where the Washington state government was pressured to put more funding into decreasing the Asian giant hornet population in Washington state. And so, the hornet hunt that’s chronicled in this documentary was ultimately a hunt that was a government-funded operation.
Two places became crucial in the hornet hunt that’s documented in this movie: First was the WSDA’s Natural Resources Building Entomology Laboratory (described in the documentary as Hornet Hunter Headquarters) in Olympia, Washington. And the second place (in Seattle) was the University of Washington’s Insect Robot Lab, which provided the miniature tracking devices that were placed on the trapped hornets. A University of Washington Ph. D. student named Vikram Iyer explains in the movie how the tracking device works. The tracking devices, which could be attached to the hornets by glue or by string, would give the investigators the ability to let the hornets loose and then hopefully be able to track the hornets back to their well-hidden hornet nest.
Leading the task force is WSDA scientist Chris Looney, who describes himself as being suited for a job where he doesn’t have to sit in an office all day and take orders. He also says he’s the type of person who’s more inclined to think that things will go wrong instead of going right, so that he doesn’t lose his cool when something doesn’t go according to plan. And mishaps and unexpected problems do indeed happen during this hornet hunt.
Someone who is part of the hunt is Conrad Bérubé, who is credited with being the first person to kill a colony of Asian giant hornets in North America. He found the deadly hornets in Nanaimo, British Columbia, in 2019. Bérubé, who is longtime insect expert, exterminated the hornets by gassing them with carbon dioxide. He didn’t walk away unscathed, since he was injured by several hornet stings.
And, as shown in the documentary, Bérubé is a hero to Ted McFall, who is extremely eager to get revenge on the hornets that killed his bees. (“They’re going to be sent back to hell, where they came from,” Ted McFall sneers about the hornets at one point in the movie.) In a lighthearted moment, the documentary shows Ted McFall meeting Bérubé and acting almost like a star-struck fan, as he happily takes selfies with Bérubé. There’s also footage of Bérubé, who’s an outdoor hippie type, trying to find the hornet nest on his own, although he doesn’t have the advantage of the tracking device.
Another person who played an important part of the hunt is Philip Bovenkamp, a private citizen who found more than one Asian giant hornet on his property and was able to singlehandedly catch them and hand them over to the WSDA for research purposes. His family and neighbors are shown taking video footage with their phones during the hunt. And his daughter (who looks like she was about 9 or 10 when this documentary was filmed) expresses some sadness that these hornets will be killed when they’re found.
And then there’s farmer Jamie Pollander, who owns the property where much of the hunt takes place. The documentary shows how Pollander made a controversial decision that didn’t sit well with several members of the team, such as Looney. There’s some foreshadowing of this decision when someone tells Pollander that finding a hornet’s nest for this team would be like hitting the lottery, and Pollander says that he wishes he could hit the lottery.
Given that this hunt took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are scenes where people have to wear masks and social distance. And there are other scenes where people who don’t live in the same household aren’t wearing masks but are standing next to each other. (Maybe they tested negative for COVID-19 and felt safe in going maskless.)
Considering how deadly these hornets are, viewers might be surprised at how little protection many of the people have on the hunt. For example, Looney often handles the hornets without wearing anything on his hands. The beekeepers wear more protection (such as a full-body beekeeper suit) in their line of work than the scientists do on this hornet hunt, even though the hornets they’re looking for are a lot more dangerous than bees.
“Attack of the Murder Hornets” is accessible viewing for non-scientists and, at times, the movie is very suspenseful in telling this interesting story. Under the direction of Stephenson, the documentary achieves the right mix of being informative and entertaining. The film’s editing by Samantha Smart and music by Julian Cisneros are very effective in adding levels of tension and urgency to what the task force ends up doing.
This isn’t a nature documentary with people droning on and on, as if they’re giving a lecture in a science class. Nor is it a documentary that relies heavily on gimmicks such on re-enactments or animation. The movie takes viewers out into the places where all the action is happening in real time for this hornet hunt.
“Attack of the Murder Hornets” was obviously made with the filmmakers not knowing what the final outcome would be. And so, that level of the unknown makes the suspense more genuine. The movie succeeds in showing a more human side to the scientists and beekeepers who have to deal with this hornet problem directly. And it’s a cautionary tale about the delicate balance of protecting the environment without destroying too much of a species that’s needed to keep the environment stable.
Discovery+ premiered “Attack of the Murder Hornets” on February 20, 2021