Be perfectly clear: insects are not bad. They have no morals or ethical guidelines. They cannot act maliciously. They certainly cannot commit murder. That said, there’s a reason the Asian giant hornet has been dubbed the “killer hornet” in the North American press and not, say, “nice bee.” These apex predators appear to have flown from the Carboniferous Age. They can slaughter colonies of honey bees in a matter of hours, tearing the torso of small pollinators 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 looked downright demonic. So it’s only fitting that director Michael Paul Stephenson’s new film Attack of murderous hornets plays like a scary tale of real crime.
The documentary, currently airing on Discovery +, opens with spectacular carnage. A kind beekeeper named Ted McFall gives a gruesome look at what happened to his bee hives when the hornets showed up at his beekeeping farm in Whatcom County, Wash.: Bulk Slaughter. McFall chokes on the subject of unexpected deaths. As a professional beekeeper who makes a 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 lose his bees. personally. Attack of murderous hornets follows McFall as he joins a loose alliance of beekeepers and scientists in the Pacific Northwest who hunt the nests of these invasive insects, rushing to remove them from the local ecosystem before they wreak havoc.
Another member of that mission is Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologist Chris Looney, a dedicated and talkative scientist who roams the woods with a net, intrepid by the long-term nature of his quest. Although the team sets traps, their breakthrough comes from tiny, high-tech equipment: robotics Vikram Iyer realizes that the tracking devices created for robotic flies could also work if attached to the giant hornet. Asian, so the gang begins by capturing individual hornets and sticking trackers on their abdomens until they are finally brought 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 specimens of young queens, which would have spread the problem throughout the region had they grown up and opened their own nests. Science doesn’t totally save the day, but it avoids disaster.
Stephenson’s documentary evolves into a fast-paced thriller clip, and he’s so immersed in the murderous hornet’s ad hoc sleuth squad that people are talking to him frankly. It captures their pursuit from an intimate vantage point, capturing quiet moments such as a local child crying at the sight of a hornet whose wings were accidentally stuck together in an attempt to fix the robot tracker. And this is a passionate and engaging group: they are all in the forest guided either by altruistic hopes for science or by the zeal of a true crusader. (“If we can’t get rid of this murderous hornet, God help us all,” McFall says.) The story is an irresistible ecological race against time, with real stakes: When bees are in danger, the entire food chain is also at risk.
With so much drama, ambiance and character built in, Attack of murderous hornets didn’t need to lean as hard as his nature-doc-as-crime-doc gimmick, with its eerie soundtrack and horror movie graphics. Most of the scientists interviewed are careful to note that the insects themselves are not responsible for following their instincts. (McCall, however, laments that he cannot behead each of the hornets himself.) Beekeeper Conrad Berube, who eradicated the first nest found in North America, is brought in to help with the mission; although he prefers vests embroidered with bees and is clearly respectful of insects, he is called “the trigger man” because he has already destroyed these habitats. Yet he has no animosity towards the hornets he feels compelled to destroy. “Look how beautiful she is,” he said, seeing a queen. “There is a certain pain in being involved in its eradication.” He explains that he helps kill creatures only to protect the ecosystem.