From pandemics to ‘Murder Hornets,’ Whitney Swink looks back on a wild 2020

by | Dec 31, 2020

Whitney Swink, NCDA&CS State Regulatory Entomologist

Just as the year is ending, Whitney Swink’s phone has finally quieted down.

In a year full of unprecedented international challenges, it might sound presumptuous to say that Swink, NCDA&CS State Regulatory Entomologist, has had a particularly wild year. From Gypsy Moth to Fire Ants and hornets with scary-sounding names, however, 2020 had plenty of unique challenges in store for Swink.

While Swink said that she loved bugs as a child, the path to her current position began in earnest while she was finishing up her undergraduate degree at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. With plans on becoming a museum curator, she looked around for graduate programs to enter which might help her achieve that goal without having to go into the narrow Museum Studies major.

Swink, a Raleigh native, would end up coming home to continue her education.

“I’d always loved bugs, as a little girl I was never afraid of them, so I thought entomology would be pretty cool to study,” she said. “I got accepted to N.C. State University, and I kind of fell into Plant Industry shortly after grad school. And I’ve been with Plant Industry my whole career.”

That career started with a temporary position in 2010, which later became a permanent position as a specialist in 2015. In October of 2016, she took her current position as state entomologist.

“The main focus of my job is running regulated insect programs. To put that into more layman’s terms, essentially there are invasive pests both here in North Carolina and not here in North Carolina, and so it’s our job to try and either keep them from spreading outside of our state or keep them from getting in. I oversee programs to serve that purpose,” Swink said. “For example, I oversee our sweet potato weevil program, our blueberry certification program, imported fire ants and several other programs. I always tell people I have a really fun job because it’s always something different, and this year has certainly been different.”

With the advent of COVID-19, most NCDA employees in downtown Raleigh began working from home early in the year. Swink said that she is fortunate to still be able to do the vast majority of her job from home, though some plans still had to be put on hold due to quarantine.

“I’d say one of the key things was that I had a lot more travel planned, which of course all of that got canceled,” she said. “Some of it would’ve been traveling to big meetings, some of it would’ve been our annual fire ant blitzes where we go to way stations and stop truckers to check what they’re hauling and make sure they’re following regulations.”

Swink during a fire ant blitz in 2019

Other than those fire ant checks, Swink said that her programs have remained largely operational during the pandemic. In a year with an unprecedented global pandemic, it was something else entirely that may have affected her job even more – the Asian Giant Hornet, also known perhaps a bit overdramatically as the “Murder Hornet.”

“We all saw that New York Times story, it came out on a Saturday. We all looked at it and immediately thought, oh, this is going to take off. And it did,” Swink said. “That first two to three weeks, my phone never stopped ringing. My email never stopped dinging, and you could tell there was just this panic. Everybody was already stressed this year, and now you’re hearing about a hornet being called the ‘Murder Hornet?’ I think that just freaked everyone out.”

Calls and emails from citizens concerned they had seen an Asian Giant Hornet flooded the Plant Industry Division and even outside of it, a situation which Swink had to acclimate to quickly. In her day-to-day work, Swink said, taking calls about hornet identification is not something that generally falls under her purview. With the Asian Giant Hornet, however, it was all hands on deck.

“At the very beginning it was a bit stressful, because I wasn’t super on top of my hornet ID’s – it’s just not something that I’ve needed to know at this point in my career. At first I was so nervous, making sure I got the ID’s right, making sure I wasn’t making the wrong call,” she said. “Now, all these months later, I’m actually at the point where I can identify the insect based on the description on a phone call, without even seeing a photo, and that has made me feel really good.”

Swink has worked hard to put the public’s mind at ease regarding the Asian Giant Hornet. The pest has still never been documented in North Carolina, and Swink said it is unlikely that it ever will be barring a completely new accidental introduction straight from Asia.

An entirely different phenomenon may have contributed to the deluge of calls – 2020 just so happened to coincide with one of the large cicada emergences which occurs every 17 years or so. And where there are cicadas, there are Cicada Killers – a lookalike for the Asian Giant Hornet which poses substantially less danger to humans.

Those, plus the naturally occurring European Hornet, meant that some form of Asian Giant Hornet doppelganger was alive and kicking for essentially the entire year.

“There were a couple of months in the summer where I started off getting only European Hornets, sometimes Southern Yellow jackets. Then for a month or two it was just Cicada Killers, and I realized oh, it’s because the cicadas are out and this hornet has so much food available so easily.”

That presented Swink with an opportunity to teach people about an insect which provides a much-needed service in controlling the cicada pest problem. Then as winter rolled around and the cicadas went back into hibernation, the calls shifted back to European Hornet sightings, she said.

The European Hornet, a species common to North Carolina which is often mistaken for the Asian Giant Hornet.

“It was really interesting as an entomologist to get to see the cycles of these insects,” she said. “In concept you know how it works, but actually getting to witness it real-time was interesting to me.

The Asian Giant Hornet calls have slowed down to nearly nothing as the weather has gotten colder. Swink said she expects the number of calls to slowly increase as things warm up in 2021, but she hopes that continued outreach and education will help people understand that the Asian Giant Hornet, despite its overblown nickname, is really not something North Carolinians need to be worried about.

“I’m glad people are looking, I’m so glad people are looking,” she said. “But I do want people to understand that if you see a hornet, you do not need to panic. Most of them do not want to mess with us in any way and can simply be left alone. A number of them are pollinators, so I’d rather they be left alone if possible unless they’re presenting an actual real threat to a human.

Quarantine may have led to the volume of calls being higher than it would’ve otherwise been, Swink said, because as people spend more time at home, they have more opportunities to notice insects which have always been there. Swink wants to help people become more aware of their native insects, because identifying and controlling the pests that are active threats to North Carolina is of paramount importance.

It’s what makes her work important, Swink said.

“The big part of why we do what we do and why we want people to pay attention is that there are all these cascading effects from invasive species,” she said. “If you get an insect that comes in and starts killing trees or killing a crop, to start with it’s just bad for the environment. If you have a beautiful forest and Gypsy Moth comes in and defoliates it, you can have all this understory death, it’s going to be hard for those trees to recover. And then you have people spending sometimes billions of dollars to try and protect those trees.

From making sure there is food on our tables to protecting the health of our natural environments and ensuring the safety of products shipped worldwide, Swink and the other employees of the NCDA Plant Industry Division have global responsibilities on their shoulders. Swink just views that as motivation.

“Anything that we can do to keep our crops, our plants, our forests healthy, it helps the world. We live because of the plants surrounding us. Having food on our table, getting to enjoy nature, the animals and insects, all of it matters,” she said. “What we do feels so important. I feel like we’re kind of the first line of defense for plants. We’re the first responders for plants.”