In November 2019, a beekeeper in Blaine, Washington, named Ted McFall was horrified to discover thousands of tiny mutilated bodies littering the ground: an entire colony of his honeybees had been brutally decapitated. The culprit: the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), a species native to southeast Asia and parts of the Russian far East. Somehow, these so-called “murder hornets” had found their way to the Pacific Northwest, where they posing a dire ecological threat to North American honeybee populations.
The story of the quest to track and eradicate the hornets before their numbers became overwhelming is the subject of a new documentary: Attack of the Murder Hornets, now streaming on Discovery+. Featuring genuine suspense, a colorful cast of characters crossing socioeconomic lines, and a tone that draws on classic horror and science fiction movies, it’s one of the best nature documentaries you’re likely to see this year.
Asian giant hornets are what’s known as apex predators, sporting enormous mandibles, the better to rip the heads off their prey and remove the tasty thoraxes (which include muscles that power the bee’s wings for flying and movement). A single hornet can decapitate 20 bees in one minute, and just a handful can wipe out 30,000 bees in 90 minutes. The hornet has a venomous, extremely painful sting—and its stinger is long enough to puncture traditional beekeeping suits. Conrad Berube, a beekeeper and entomologist who had the misfortune to be stung seven times while exterminating a murder hornet nest, told The New York Times, “It was like having red-hot thumbtacks being driven into my flesh.” And while Japanese honeybees, for example, have evolved defenses against the murder hornet, North American honeybees have not, as the slaughter of McFall’s colony aptly demonstrated.
Director Michael Paul Stephenson’s credits include two documentaries: Best Worst Movie—about his experience co-starring in the 1990 cult comedy/horror film, Troll 2—and The American Scream. So when he pitched his idea for a documentary about the murder hornets to Discovery, some of that horror sensibility crept in, including B-movie-inspired artwork showing a gigantic hornet menacing beekeepers and scientists.
“I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, and a lot of them, it’s interview, B-roll, interview, B-roll, political statement, theme,” he told Ars. Stephenson wanted to do something different and shoot his murder hornet documentary through a horror/sci-fi lens.
Among those featured in Attack of the Murder Hornets: Chris Looney, an entomologist with the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA); McFall and fellow beekeeper Ruthie Danielson; a government scientist and insect expert named Sven-Erik Spichiger; and Berube, who was the first to find and destroy a murder hornet nest in Vancouver Island, Canada. Stephenson’s team chronicled the race against the breeding clock to find and destroy a similar hornet nest in Washington state.
Ars sat down with Stephenson to learn more.
Ars Technica: What drew you to make a documentary about murder hornets?
Michael Paul Stephenson: I read The New York Times article last May and thought, murder hornets? What is going on? We’re all locked in our homes. Now we have murder hornets. Immediately, I was like, “This feels like a horror movie. It feels like a science fiction drama.” I thought, “What does this look like through the lens of horror and science fiction? What is the Stranger Things version of this?” Discovery immediately connected to that sensibility. I’m always drawn to characters first, revealing themes through people who have something at stake. End of the day for me, it’s what’s the story, who are the characters, how do you tell it in a way that people remember? The story had this intriguing mix of government public service workers and scientists and beekeepers, all trying to stop an invasive species, having to deal with this gigantic hornet that is not native to the country.
Ars Technica: Can you talk a little bit about the camera technology and the overall look you were shooting for?
Michael Paul Stephenson: The majority of the film is shot on two RED MONSTROs at 8K. It was really important to us to embrace natural light as much as possible. We had to shoot with very high speed lenses because we were dealing with low light. We wanted this to feel like science in real time. We wanted it to feel like we are there with these people in this moment. And we wanted to give it a sense of design. What would the narrative version of the scene look like? Let’s shoot it so that we can edit it as such. So it’s about multiple cameras and coverage and making sure that we’re not only covering our scientists, but we’re covering the reaction of the scientist.
I had planned on using drones early on—not too much because I think drones can be so overused. But I wanted to also shoot from the hornet’s POV. Hornets articulate themselves in a totally different way than just the normal drone beauty shot. That’s when I got tipped off about racing drones, which I had not used before. They’re smaller and the way they can articulate through the forest on a dime is much different than the regular drone.
Ars Technica: I assume you also had to wear the special anti-murder hornet suit to avoid being stung.
Michael Paul Stephenson: With the hornets specifically, I had to wear the same special suit [as the scientists], and it’s its own form of terror. We had to wear those when we found the nest and if we got too close. The night of the eradication, it’s dark. We’re in suits. Nobody knew what was going to happen. We knew that these things can spray venom. They can sting.
There was a moment, ironically, when I was shooting the bees at night with Ted [McFall], and we were surrounded by bees. I had a regular bee suit on, not the crazy hornet suit. As I’m suiting up, it’s dark, and I see the silhouette of a bee crawl up right in front of my nose. And, I’m like, “Uh-oh. That’s not good. That’s on the inside of my mask.” I had left a portion of my suit open. Within a minute of noticing that, I got stung six times because more bees got into my suit. I guess when a bee stings you, other bees will find it and they’ll sting you, too.
Ars Technica: A substantial portion of your film focuses on the efforts to track a murder hornet back to the nest. That whole sequence conveys just how hard doing science really is on a practical level. Things rarely work on the first attempt.
Michael Paul Stephenson: Science is an iterative process, it progresses in fits and starts—not unlike creativity or making a movie. You fall a few times, get back up. It sounds wrong, but I loved the failure, because it shows the persistence and the commitment that these public servants have, and the slim chance that they will succeed. It’s easy to be critical of other people. “Oh, they should do this or they should do that.” But there’s few people who actually get in the ring and try to do the work, knowing that they face public scrutiny. Let’s face it, the odds of them finding the nest were slim at best. Seeing them not give up—even as the public is like, “Ah, they failed”—only makes me appreciate what they’re trying to do it for in the first place. I think that it gives you a real defining sense of their character and how important this is to them.
I probably would have quit. While we were filming, I was expecting at some point for them to be like, “Ah, we’re done. We’re just not going to find this thing. Who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe it won’t be that big of a threat. We’ll just roll the dice.” Never once did they ever give me that sort of thing. They are heroes.
Ars Technica: Was there anything that surprised you while making this film?
Michael Paul Stephenson: I knew I was going to find entomologists. I knew that I’d find scary bugs. I knew the world was going to be interesting. What surprised me emotionally was the impact of public servants, and a government office actually working with citizen scientists—seeing this happen at this scale and this level of cooperation. People think of working with government as being difficult, because it is a lot of the times. This is an example where it wasn’t. Seeing that was awesome, and it had me thinking more about the value of public servants.
When I was shooting the hornet, all the closeups when we were with the team, I was excited to see this creature, looking through my lens and see this alien hornet. The energy and the excitement being with the entomologist and the team, it’s palpable. I was so caught in the moment of awe. You see an entomologist hold this hornet for the first time after it’s been on ice so it’s sedated and you see its abdomen pumping. I’ve never seen a hornet up close like that before.
(Warning: some spoilers below the gallery.)
Ars Technica: I was impressed by the sheer diversity of the viewpoints featured. For instance, you had a devoutly religious beekeeper suspicious of the scientists, and a landowner who wanted to keep all the hornet specimens found on his property and and sell them on E-Bay, rather than donating them to science. It was refreshing and quite hopeful to see all these different people overcome their differences and work together for a common cause.
Michael Paul Stephenson: I don’t believe people are black and white. I have my good days. I have my bad days. Humanity is not good versus evil. As human beings, we often try to see things through the lens of good and evil. The reality is life—beauty and warts and all —is always in between. That is humanity.
With this story I was intentionally trying to present an ensemble of characters, and to do so fairly and accurately. It’s not just all awesome scientists. It’s not just all beekeepers. You’ve got a scientist who is very practical and very deliberate. And you have a religious beekeeper who comes more from a place of fear. Let’s face it, he has the most personally at stake. His bees were killed. In some moments the religious zealot is criticizing the Washington Department of Agriculture and in another moment he saying, “I want to be part of their team.” That’s the reality with human beings in general. Our perspectives do change. Our thinking evolves based on the input in the perspective we’re getting.
The landowner was the very last interview that I filmed. This is a huge twist in the movie and I didn’t see it coming. They had found the nest and here was one more obstacle that science faced. It was such a blow, but also a very defining character moment when Chris [Looney], the main scientist, was like, “Look, it’s a lot of money. I can’t fault him without grandstanding and being moralizing.” That is actually a defining characteristic of a real hero: self-sacrifice.
Ars Technica: There’s always an element of serendipity when filming nature documentaries—in this case, would the murder hornet nest be found within the time frame of your shooting schedule.
Michael Paul Stephenson: That’s true. We didn’t know if they were going to find a nest. We didn’t know if we would be with them when they found the nest. We had to spend so much time just staying on every beat of the story in hopes of not missing that moment. And we almost did [miss it]. We had walked all over the woods for days, weeks, trudging through blackberries, cameras easy rigged, torn up to pieces from blackberry thorns.
It was towards the end of the shoot, the window that we thought they were going to have in trying to find this hornet. In my mind I was like, “I’ve got to start thinking about an ending of them not finding this nest.” And, that day I talked to them about, “Okay, what’s next here? What does it mean that we didn’t find one?” That afternoon they got a call about the other hornet being caught, and the next day, we were out with them to trying to find it.
We had gone hours, we hadn’t eaten, and everyone was a little grumpy. Our cameras, for whatever reason, started creating interference with the Department of Agriculture’s tracking devices. So, they were hearing static randomly. Fortunately we had backup Sony 7S cameras in the car. We hurried and switched to those cameras, stayed with them, and 20 minutes later, they found the nest.
Ars Technica: There’s even room for a sequel, just like any other horror movie, because there could be more murder hornet nests.
Michael Paul Stephenson: The sad reality is that this is just one battle in the war. The murder hornets are here because of humans. These scientists, these beekeepers, this is an issue they’re going to have to continue to fight. Something like three years have to pass without a single sighting for [the hornets] to be considered eradicated. They’ve done DNA testing since from some of the specimens that they’ve found, and they’ve concluded that they’re from different nests. So, the likelihood that there were more nests is almost 100 percent. Whether or not those nests make it over the winter and then bring forth new colonies in the spring, we won’t know until later. I can tell you they’re gearing up to do the same thing come this spring, drawing upon the knowledge and the science they learned in this first year.
It is a serious threat. And if this species does take hold, there’s no telling the impact that it’s going to have on the ecology, on the environment, on agriculture, all the way down the line.
Attack of the Murder Hornets is now streaming on Discovery+.