Remember the murder hornets? Back in May 2020, when the reality of what would turn out to be a yearlong quarantine was just beginning to set in, a news story broke of yet another plague menacing our shores. “Murder hornets,” enormous predatory insects with deadly stings and a penchant for beheading entire hives of bees, had been sighted in Washington state, prompting a statewide search and eradication effort that lasted the whole summer.
With dwindling honeybee populations already a worry amongst entomologists, botanists, beekeepers, and farmers alike, the advent of the Asian giant hornet, dramatically dubbed “murder hornet” in the press, could spell death to a native American insect species already near the tipping point. (Our bees don’t have the defense mechanism against giant hornets that Asian honeybees do: When one is spotted near a hive, the bees glom onto its body in clumps 20 or 40 strong and beat their wings to generate heat, cooking the hornet to death.) Compounded with the stress of a worldwide pandemic, the news of murder hornets seemed Biblical. Oh, of course, we all thought, yet another horror to add to the worst year ever. What’s next, a flood? Blood raining down from the sky?
The murder hornets spawned plenty of headlines and darkly humorous tweets for a few weeks, and then we all moved on to something else. But what about the people who didn’t, whose lives instead became consumed by the need to save our continent from yet another invasive species with the ability to cause real havoc on our ecosystem?
Director Michael Paul Stephenson (Girlfriend’s Day, Best Worst Movie) wanted to know. He decided to document the containment efforts going on in Washington in the summer of 2020, speaking to beekeepers, entomologists, invasive species experts, and government agents, following their plans to find not just the hornets but their nests as well. The result is Attack of the Murder Hornets, now streaming on Discovery+, a thrilling, bizarre, monster B-movie-inspired documentary with a John Carpenter-y soundtrack about the people crazy enough to take on this terrifying beast. Stephenson spoke to Thrillist about this bug-flavored Mission: Impossible, the knowledge he now has about insects and conservation, and loving Arachnophobia.
Thrillist: What interested you so much in this to make a whole documentary about it?
Michael Paul Stephenson: My interest really started in May, when the New York Times article came about the murder hornets in the US, and was the first time they were called murder hornets here in America. I was home, like everybody else, going nowhere, living the full-on pandemic nightmare. And I read this article in my kitchen. First, it was just this feeling of like, “Oh, of course, yeah, why not murder hornets, perfect, sounds wonderful, let’s just have more calamity to the world.” And then what really brought me into it was the journalist Mike Baker in that article essentially introduces us to these characters, these people who are expected to try to stop the further establishment of the species. And I was drawn in to the character story above all else. It just felt like an impossible mission. It felt like a living, breathing, true horror story. I just got pulled into that thinking, like, “How on Earth does somebody try to stop the establishment of an invasive species?” It just felt like the odds were stacked against these folks in the Pacific Northwest.
The joy of something like this is that you get these really interesting people who you wouldn’t otherwise meet on any other day.
It’s so true. I don’t even think I ever said the word “entomologist” before. In my whole life, I don’t know if I ever said it. There was no guarantee we would find even a single hornet, let alone a nest. At the end of the day, I’m driven by people and by characters. So, if I can hang out with a really cool scientist or an entomologist who’s doing his damnedest to try to stop this thing, that’s ultimately enough for me to stay curious throughout the whole thing.
There were times when I was reminded of the movie Arachnophobia, and specifically the John Goodman exterminator character.
After I had put together the pitch, I pitched it over Zoom, and I ended up connecting on four films, genre films, and had a great call. And one of my first pieces of art specific to the pitch was basically this horror movie-inspired art of a giant hornet hovering over these beekeepers. I was interested in telling the story in a way that sort of leaned more into horror and science fiction, and less social or political or issue-oriented. There was this twisted thought in my head: How do you make a murder hornet movie still fun, or enjoyable, or an experience, and not just people with one more problem than the world is experiencing? One of the things that I enjoy about horror is it’s still fun, it’s an experience that you can still enjoy. I love Arachnophobia, and I’m thrilled that this made you think of that, because I probably saw that film in the theatre when I was in fourth or fifth grade.
How awesome was it then to actually find not just the hornets, but an entire nest?
Oh, man. I feel really privileged. Like, I feel like a scientist. I feel like somebody who was able to go with scientists to another planet or to the depths of the ocean and discover a new species. It felt like that. And when I saw the first hornet in [Washington State Department of Agriculture entomologist] Chris Looney’s hand, after it had been on ice, and he’s holding it, that was the first time I’d seen one in real life. I obviously just hoped we would see one. The hornet had kind of taken on this mythological status at this point. And so to see it living, breathing in this entomologist’s hand, it’s what you live for, to be there in that moment. And it was so cool to just look at this thing and see how big it is, how robust it is, and just the character of its face. And then to see, ultimately, through all the ups and downs and the failures, the fits and starts, to be with them when they find the nest, I mean. I was so excited for them. I was so excited that I almost forgot that I was trying to make a movie about it. I was screaming and shouting. I was so caught up in the moment.
When we were with them in the woods, [after attaching a radio transmitter to a captured hornet’s back to see if it would lead them to a nest] as they were trying to track it during the final attempt where they were actually successful, we’d walked, I don’t know, hours, everywhere, trying to find this thing. And then suddenly our main cameras start interfering with their technology. And they were like, “Guys, we’re sorry, we can’t have you. We can’t film, because it’s pretty static. Meet up with us later.” We had backup cameras in our car, totally different kind of cameras. We hurried and switched to the backup cameras so we didn’t stop following them or lose them, and 15 minutes later is when they found the nest.
This is maybe going to sound weird, but I really loved how much the hornets were in this movie. You get to really see, like you said, the expressions of their heads. Like any good movie monster you’re almost bummed out by the end when they have to exterminate them.
Right? Just like the entomologists, just like the beekeepers, just like the landowner, this is a character. The scene before the eradication everyone kind of has their moment to reflect on the hornet and their perspective on the hornet as it’s inhabited their world. Of course Ted [McFall, a beekeeper] who’s a very religious man and is afraid of this-and rightfully so, I mean, his entire colony was slaughtered-he’s like, “This thing’s evil, go back to Hell.” You’ve got a young, innocent, sweet kid who’s like, “But wait a minute, if they didn’t attack the honeybees, why would they be so bad?” And you’ve got her father who is like, “Hey, we’re gonna trust science. This shouldn’t be here. We need to trust science, right?” And then you have Chris, who is an entomologist, who’s like, “Look, we can’t ascribe the morals of man to an insect. And this may be a dangerous insect, but it’s not a ‘murder hornet.'”
I’ve talked to wildlife photographers and filmographers before and they all say the same thing about how there is no inherent value of one thing over another in the animal kingdom, all these things have a purpose.
The thing about this hornet is, it’s here because of man, because of the impact that we’ve had on our environment, through the way we move goods throughout the world. The hornet has a place in its native environment, and actually plays a role in the ecology of that place on a number of levels. Everything has its natural role as it relates to its natural environment. When things get goofy is when the ecology of the environment starts to change because of the influence that we have as human beings on the landscape.
The documentary ends on this “we haven’t really won yet” note, because scientists do believe that there could be more out there. Have you followed up with anyone since completing the movie?
Yeah, I was just texting Chris today. And I still stay in touch with Ted. When you make films like this, you kind of become family. They had reason to suspect that there were actually more nests, that it wasn’t just that nest last fall, because there were specimens that were found in areas that would have suggested they weren’t part of that colony, just by way of distance. Basically, it’s like a two mile or so radius. And there were other specimens that were found outside of that. They’ve also since done DNA testing on various specimens, and they’ve been able to conclude that they are from different colonies, so we know that more than likely there were multiple nests.
Now, when you go into winter and they hibernate, you can argue that some of these other nests they didn’t find may not make it through winter. But on the other hand, nobody knows. So, come next month, they’re starting to set up traps all over again, and they will have to continue to try to track down this species to see how much they’ve established. There’s a window of time here that they’re up against. With an invasive species, trying to stop it, the odds are against you in the first place. It’s very hard to stop. Your only chance is if you get it early enough, if you get enough of an impact early on and it hasn’t spread out of control. If nothing were to happen, three years from now we’d have a major issue. And people could say, “Wow, why didn’t somebody do this when we could actually do something?” That’s what these folks are doing right now. They’re trying to do something.
Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.