In November 2019, a beekeeper in Blaine, Washington, named Ted McFall, was horrified to discover thousands of tiny mutilated bodies flooding the country: an entire colony of his honey bees was brutally beheaded. The culprit: the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), a species native to Southeast Asia and parts of the Russian Far East. These so-called “killing hornets” have somehow found themselves in the Northwest Pacific, where they pose a serious environmental threat to the populations of North American bees.
The story of the search for tracking and eradicating hornets before their numbers became irresistible is the subject of a new documentary: Hornet killer attack, now streaming on Discovery +. Featuring true suspense, a vivid combination of characters that cross socio-economic lines and a tone that draws on classic horror and science fiction films, it’s one of the best nature documentaries you’ll likely be watching this year.
Asian giant hornets are known as predators at the top, with huge mandibles, which is better to tear off the heads of prey and remove the delicious thorax (which include the muscles that move the wings of a bee to fly and move). One hornet can decapitate 20 bees in one minute, and only a handful can wipe out 30,000 bees in 90 minutes. The hornet has a poisonous, extremely painful sting – and its sting is long enough to pierce traditional beekeeping suits. Conrad Berube, a beekeeper and entomologist who had the misfortune to be stabbed seven times while exterminating a hornet’s nest for murder, told the New York Times, “It was like stabbing hot pictures in my heart.” And while, for example, Japanese honey bees have developed a defense against hornets for killing, North American bees have not, as the slaughter of McFall’s colony has aptly shown.
Director Michael Paul Stephenson includes two documentaries: Best Worst Movie– about his experience in the cult comedy / horror film 1990, Troll 2—I American cry. So when he sent his idea for a documentary about hornet killers to Discovery, part of that horror sensibility crept in, including B-film-inspired artwork depicting giant beekeepers and scientists threatening hornets.
“I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, and a lot of them, it’s an interview, a B-roll, an interview, a B-roll, a political statement, a topic,” he told Ars. Stephenson wanted to do something different and make his own documentary about hornet killers through a horror / sci-fi lens.
Among those presented in Hornet killer attack: Chris Looney, entomologist at 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 first found and destroyed a hornet’s nest for murder on Vancouver Island in Canada. Stephenson’s team recorded a race against the breeding clock to find and destroy a similar hornet’s nest in Washington state.
Ars sat down with Stephenson to find out more.
Ars Technica: What attracted you to make a documentary about hornet killers?
Michael Paul Stephenson: I read an article from the New York Times last May and thought, “Killing hornets? What’s going on? We’re all locked in our homes. Now we have hornet killers.” I immediately said, “This seems like a horror movie to me. It feels like a science fiction drama.” I thought, “What does this look like through the lens of horror and science fiction? What is it?” Stranger Things version of this? “The discovery immediately connected to that sensibility. I’m always drawn to the characters first, revealing themes through people who have something in play. The end of the day for me is what’s the story, what are the characters, how do you tell the way people remember? The story?” had this intriguing mix of civil servants and scientists and beekeepers, all of whom were trying to stop the invasive species, and had to face this giant hornet that was 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: Most of the film was shot on two RED MONSTROS in 8K. It was really important for us to accept 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 real-time science. We wanted him to feel like we were here with these people at the moment. And we wanted to give it a sense of design. What would a narrative version of the scene look like? Let’s record it so we can edit it as such. So, we are talking about multiple cameras and coverage and we ensure that we do not only cover our scientists, but we also cover the reaction of scientists.
I planned to use drones early – not too much, because I think drones can be overdone so much. But I also wanted to shoot hornets from the POV. Hornets are articulated in a completely different way than is the case with conventional drone shooting. Then I got information about racing drones, which I had not used before. They are smaller, and the way they can articulate through the woods is finely different from a regular drone.
Ars Technica: I guess you had to wear a special hornet suit against homicides to avoid being stabbed.
Michael Paul Stephenson: Specifically with hornets, I had to wear the same special suit [as the scientists], and it is its own form of terror. We had to carry them when we found the nest and if we got too close. The night of eradication is dark. We’re in suits. Nobody knew what was going to happen. We knew those things could spray poison. They can sting.
It was ironic when I shot bees at night with Ted [McFall], and we were surrounded by bees. I was wearing a plain bee suit, not a crazy hornet suit. As I get dressed, it’s dark and I see the silhouette of a bee crawling in front of my nose. And, I’m like, “Uh-oh. That’s not good. It’s on the inside of my mask.” I left part of my suit open. Within a minute of noticing this, they stabbed me six times because more bees got into my suit. I guess when a bee stings you, other bees will find it, and it will sting you too.
Ars Technica: A significant portion of your film focuses on efforts to get the hornet killer back into the nest. The whole series shows how difficult science really is on a practical level. Things rarely work from the first try.
Michael Paul Stephenson: Science is an iterative process, it adapts and begins – unlike creativity or filmmaking. You fall a few times, go back upstairs. It sounds wrong, but I loved the failure, because it shows the perseverance and dedication of these public servants and the small chances that they will succeed. It’s easy to be critical of other people. “Oh, we should do this or we should do that.” But there are few people who actually enter the ring and try to get the job done, knowing they are facing public scrutiny. Let’s face it – the chances of him finding a nest were slim at best. Seeing them not give up – even though the public is like, “Ah, they failed” – just makes me appreciate what they want to do at all. I think it gives you a real definite sense of their character and how important this is to them.
I would probably quit. As we were filming, I expected that at some point it would be like, “Ah, we’re done. We just won’t find this thing. Who knows what will happen? Maybe it won’t be that big of a threat. We’ll just roll the dice.” whether such things. They are heroes.