Georgia agriculture officials announced Friday that they had located and eradicated near Savannah the country’s first known nest belonging to the yellow-legged hornet, an invasive species never seen alive in the U.S. before it was first detected earlier this month.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture shared images of a yellow-legged hornet nest that its scientists removed Wednesday from a tree on a Wilmington Island residential property located near the Savannah Bee Company’s garden. (Credit: Georgia Department of Agriculture)

Native to Southeast Asia, the yellow-legged hornet preys on bees and other crucial pollinators, prompting Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper to call the nest’s removal a “vital first step” toward protecting the state’s agricultural industry, which he described as Georgia’s economic “backbone.”

“This is a huge win for Georgia agriculture; it is a big win for the citizens of this state,” Harper said at a news conference, standing next to a large chunk of the eradicated nest which was found just east of Savannah on Wilmington Island.

There, state scientists and pest control workers removed the nest Wednesday from a tree roughly 85 feet off the ground at a residential property located near Savannah Bee Company’s large commercial bee garden.

“We are still determining if this is the only nest,” Harper said. “We will continue to monitor, and we ask that the public help us continue to do that, to see if there are any additional nests and any additional sightings of the yellow-legged hornet.”

Although similar in appearance to some other insects such as scoliid wasps, said University of Georgia Extension entomologist Tim Davis, the roughly one-inch-long yellow-legged hornet can be distinguished by not only its yellow legs but also its yellow face and a yellow stripe on its fourth abdominal segment.

“It’s going to hurt if you get stung by one, but they’re no more aggressive than any other stinging insect,” Davis said, adding that the yellow-legged hornet is related to the Asian giant hornet, which grabbed headlines in 2019 as the so-called “murder hornet” when it emerged in Washington state.

“We already have a lot of things that pressure beekeeping here,” Davis said. “Beekeeping is hard here, and adding just one more thing to the varroa and small hive beetle and all those kinds of things just make it that much harder.”

Sherrie and Bobby Black can relate. The married couple have harvested some 200 pounds of honey so far this year on their one-acre garden in the aptly named Savannah suburb of Garden City — not including what they leave in the hives for “the girls,” as Sherrie affectionately calls their honeybees.

“We’re constantly fighting the beetles and mites,” Bobby said. “So, on top of this, this is just another enemy,” he added with a sigh.

“We need the pollinators. The pollinators are important for our plants, our crops,” said Sherrie, noting that many of the fruits and vegetables they grow — such as tomatoes, pineapples and passionfruit — rely on bees and other pollinating insects. “And the honey is medicine — wax and all that good stuff. So, we don’t want anything to come and damage the bees.”

Although genetic testing of trapped specimens may allow scientists to determine from which part of the globe Savannah’s yellow-legged hornets originated, Davis said that it may always be a mystery how the species made the voyage.

“There are so many ways in a global economy for an invasive species of any kind to move,” Davis said. “This could have come in a commercial airline flight. It could have come from a military group. It could have come through the ports.”

In fact, the Port of Savannah is among the busiest on the East Coast. On top of that, Coastal Georgia is home to a large military presence, between Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah and Fort Stewart in nearby Hinesville.

The possibility of introduction via port upsets Bobby Black, owing to the close proximity between his Garden City neighborhood and the busy shipping container terminal.

“The ports are important, but our bees are, too,” he said with a laugh. “I mean, what can you do? It’s one of those Catch-22s. I hope that’s not the case, because then they may be close to where we’re at.”

This story comes to Rough Draft Atlanta through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Benjamin Payne is the Savannah-based reporter for GPB, where he covers Coastal Georgia.