Asian Giant Hornets, the So-Called ‘Murder Hornets’

The year 2020 has been one of many troubles, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the largest wildfire in recorded California history. Then the cruel fates seemed to say, “Hold my beer,” and we learned that giant “murder hornets” invaded North America. Truly, 2020 is a year not to be forgotten.

Fortunately, facts always help when confronting any potential threat, from big to small. So, with that in mind, we’ll look at what is currently known about murder hornets.

The World’s Largest Hornets

As you might have suspected, murder hornets are the world’s largest hornet species. Their scientific name is Vespa mandarinia. No, not Mandalorian, but there is a slight resemblance, don’t you think?

The queens can grow up to two inches long. Although their popular name is certainly catchy, they are Asian giant hornets. These insects are native to the forests of eastern and southern Asia. However, they are most common in the forests of Japan.

A Painful Sting 

Using spiked mandibles that look like shark fins, they viciously attack honeybee colonies, tearing off the heads of bees. They’re also armed with a long stinger and potent venom that can puncture a beekeeper’s suit. 

According to the Times, being stung feels like “hot metal driving into” the skin. Others say the sting feels like being “stabbed by a red-hot needle.”

One researcher expert from Japan described the sting:

“Usually, the stung part severely swells and continues aching for a few days,” stated Shunichi Makino. And “although you could also have these symptoms when stung by the other hornet species, the intensity is said to be much more severe in Vespa mandarinia.”

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Similar accounts suggest the painful sting can last for two days, disturbing restful sleep.

Annually, murder hornets kill 50 people in Japan. For comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that stings from hornets, wasps, and bees combined kill about 62 people in the United States every year.

Notably, most people who are stung will recover with symptoms of swelling and redness. Thus, they pose little risk to most people who are not allergic to bee stings. If stung repeatedly, the neurotoxin from the sting can be dangerous, but no more than the Africanized bee.

As you would expect, their relatively toxic venom can pose a real threat to allergic people. 

A Tasty Hornet Treat

Of course, the hornet’s painful sting doesn’t prevent people from finding them delicious. In Japan, their venom is used in liquor after live specimens are drowned in a clear beverage called shochu.

In the central Chubu region of Japan, murder hornets are a delicacy and eaten as a snack. There, they are commonly called “giant sparrow hornets,” and the queen grub is considered most delicious.

According to the Times:

The giant hornet, along with other varieties of wasps, has traditionally been considered a delicacy in this rugged part of the country. The grubs are often preserved in jars, pan-fried or steamed with rice to make a savory dish called hebo-gohan. The adults, which can be two inches long, are fried on skewers, stinger and all until the carapace becomes light and crunchy. They leave a warming, tingling sensation when eaten.”

A Growing Interest in Entomophagy

Although you might feel squeamish at the thought, the hornets are a cheap protein source for impoverished people in rural areas. In the past, eating hornets was widespread across Japan. 

Today, young urban dwellers are attracted to the novelty of eating the large hornets. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that insects are an environmentally friendly source of protein. Today, there’s a growing international interest in entomophagy, the practice of eating insects.

Thus, murder hornets are popular in Tokyo restaurants, eaten as snacks, and as “hornet liquor.” Curiously, hornet saliva is used in energy drinks and is considered a source of strength by some Japanese athletes.

 Kushihara Hebo Matsuri: The Wasp Festival

Every year, for generations, a Japanese wasp festival has taken place. Then in 1993, a public celebration developed as elderly wasp hunters passed along the tradition. In the rural Gifu prefecture, families who hunt the huge giant wasp nests come together for a November contest. Contestants with the most impressive nests win trophies. During the festival, wasp larvae (still alive in the oversized nests) are eaten like treats.

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To locate the wasps, hunters place a piece of fish in the forest. Attached to the fish, they place a piece of paper. Soon, a wasp arrives to carry off the fish, waving the paper like a tiny flag.

Then the hunters follow along, chasing the wasp through the forest until they discover the nest. Incredibly, the enormous underground nests can house a thousand hornets and their larvae.

See more about the wasp hunters and the prized giant nests from Journeyman Pictures below:

They’re Attracted to Hair Spray and Perfume

According to accounts from Japan, if you live in an area where murder hornets are present, they are attracted to hair spray and perfume. 

But, don’t worry.  Encountering the hornets in the United States is so far extremely unlikely. Since their arrival in northwestern Washington State, scientists are urgently trying to destroy them all. And, that’s a good thing for native honeybees. 

Murder Hornets Could Spread Rapidly

Today, scientists are doing their best to prevent the spread of murder hornets in North America. Unfortunately, they say the risk to honeybees and other native insects is very high. Western honeybees have no defense against the wasps, and they can quickly devastate whole colonies in the late summer and fall.

On the other hand, Asian bees have developed a defense strategy, buzzing together in a ball to raise the hive’s temperature, cooking hornets alive.

See what murder hornets do to honeybees in the video from VICE News below:

Native Bees are Most at Risk

Sadly, panic about the hornets causes some people to act irrationally, killing already threatened native bees. In Washington, authorities called on residents outside the state not to attempt to trap the hornets. They accidentally killed the wrong bees when they tried to trap murder hornets.

In September 2019, the giant wasps were found in western British Columbia, Canada. From there, it spread to Washington state along the border. Now, studies suggest murder hornets are most likely to spread through along the west coast and eastern seaboard. Fortunately, the interior states may be at much less risk due to extremes in heat, cold, and precipitation.

Flying 68 miles a year, murder hornets could spread fast if left unchecked. Fortunately, scientists believe the invasion is presently manageable and are working to stop them from gaining a foothold. Notably, many of them would like people to stop calling them “murder hornets,” which has led to overblown media hype.

Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube