I, for One, Welcome our New Giant Stinging Overlords
October 6, 2013
If you’re in a rush, here’s the takeaway. Giant Asian Hornets have exploded in numbers due to recent warm winter and spring weather. They sting and kill you. They’ve been spotted in the US.
You can “like” them on Facebook.
Climate change might be contributing to a global rise in insect numbers. As if that weren’t bad enough, some of the bugs that appear to be benefitting from that population surge are giant Asian hornets that are killing people unfortunate enough to disturb them.
Honeybees, hornets and wasps are all able to deliver painful and potentially lethal stings; but while bees are seen as doers of good, wasps and hornets have long been associated with evil.
Most deaths occur when a victim is stung repeatedly and injected with large amounts of venom. The hornet’s large size – and its ability, unlike honeybees, to sting multiple times – mean that a victim can quickly receive a lethal dose.
One possible reason for the recent wave of attacks in China may be increased encounters with hornet nests, since multiple attacks usually occur when the insects defend their nests.
Hornets go through natural population cycles: in some years nests are scarce, while in others nests can be very common, as may be the case in central China. The reasons for this are numerous, but a prolonged period of warm weather in spring and autumn ensures an abundant food supply, allowing colonies to grow to large sizes.
Hornets are a top predator – the lions of the insect world. They have few natural predators, and depending on the species their nests can contain hundreds or thousands of female workers by the autumn (the males cannot sting). This is particularly impressive since in the spring the colony is started by a single queen who mated in the previous autumn and has spent the winter hibernating.
More than 99% of queens normally die over winter and spring, so small variations in this mortality rate can lead to massive differences in the numbers of nests each year. So given the opportunity, a hornet population has a massive potential to expand rapidly, which has happened recently with the accidental introduction of the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) to France and Korea.
The wasps that have been killing people aren’t just any old wasps. They’re thought to be Vespa mandarinia, or, “Asian giant hornets.” Asian giant hornets are the largest hornets in the world. They’re the Asia of hornets, in fact. The average one grows to 2.2 inches in length, which is small compared to a car but TERRIFYINGLY HUGE when you consider it is a wasp the size of a meatball. If you never want to feel peace again, you can check out an image of four (dead) queen hornets—which are even bigger than workers and males—here, with a hand to give them scale.
This year, the hornet attacks in China have been more frequent than usual; one health official suggested to the AP that warmer temperatures have led to increased breeding among the insects. The mayor of one affected city in Shaanxi announced last week plans to establish a 24-hour emergency response team to combat hornets in light of the recent fatalities. (Wasp season in China runs from May to November.)
Account of sting effect below:
From video description:
3-4 stings can reputedly be fatal but it would depend on your reaction – they are amongst the most poisonous insects on earth. The symptoms for me were acute pain — the oft quoted ‘hot nail’ is pretty accurate but that’s just the start of it — it’s then like a chemical pain bomb going off under your skin – shortness of breath, nausea, paralysis and pronounced swelling of affected area, faintness. The fainting is the worst, because having already read on the internet that they can be deadly, you don’t want any of that ‘fade to black’ thing happening. My reaction was stronger the second time because I was stung twice by the same hornet. The fainting and nausea seemed to pass after 30 minutes, and that is probably the danger zone – but it hurts like hell for a good 4 hours.
If you do get stung, seek medical attention and they’ll give you an anti-histamine shot and you should be ok.
I also found soaking the affected part in hot water seemed to relieve the pain during the first few hours, then icing it after that.
If you encounter a nest, the technique, supposedly, is to crouch down, keep your hands down, and slowly move away. I ran, and one followed me, hovered for a second to suss out a point of attack, then latched onto my throat with its sticky feet and injected me. I kept running after that and no others followed – so I wouldn’t dismiss running as an escape method entirely. Don’t wear brightly coloured clothing or perfume when you go hiking.
If you see one flying around by itself — I see them daily around my house – it’s probably not a threat, just out hunting for food. Though they are curious, and routinely buzz around my ears, which still freaks me out. Their main food target is the larvae of other insects, especially bees, which they feed to their own larvae.
Upside – More giant insect larvae to add to our jellyfish sushi.