Weird Wednesdays: Killer hornets of death

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

Vespa mandarinia japonica, or the Japanese Giant Hornet a.k.a. the stuff of nightmares. (Alpsdake/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Ok, kids. Let’s play a game. Imagine the insect you are most terrified of. Chances are, besides spiders, cockroaches and fire ants, it’s a hornet. Are you picturing it in your mind? Are you mentally screaming in terror yet? Great.

Now double its size. Also give it a stinger full of horrible neurotoxin (which can hospitalize a full-grown man given enough dosage) and that’s painful enough to feel like a hot nail being hammered into your limb. Are you imagining it?

These creatures sounds like the stuff of horrifying science fiction. Well, I have news for you: They’re real. And they probably hate you. Good luck going outside this spring.

In all seriousness, the Japanese Giant Hornet, known scientifically as Vespa mandarinia japonica, more colloquially as ōsuzumebachi (“Giant Sparrow Bee”) and occasionally as the “yak-killer” is found throughout the islands of Japan, nesting in trees in rural areas and in bamboo forests around mountains. It’s a subspecies of the Asian Giant Hornet Vespa mandarinia (yes, there’s MORE of them), which itself is scattered in tropical areas around Eastern Asia.

The bugs aren’t given the name “giant” lightly. They’re the largest species of vespid out there, reaching to the size of nearly 2 inches (or about the length of your thumb) and weighing in at an estimated 1070 mg. Their stinger reaches to about quarter of an inch, which is roughly the size of a small thumbtack pin. Still reading? I laud your bravery.    

Japonica stings kill about 40 people a year, and land many more in the hospital. Conventional wisdom urges those stung three or more times to seek medical attention; those stung more than ten are doomed to painful death (Unluckily, individuals who are allergic to wasp and bee stings have an even grimmer prognosis). While they don’t sting unless provoked, they can fly up to 25 mph-- so good luck outrunning one if you disturb a nest.

The hornet’s toxin itself is a lovely cocktail of nerve-paralyzing compounds, which can damage bodily tissues and cause kidney failure. The venom also contains a phospholipase, which more or less breaks down the fat layer just underneath your skin into liquid fatty acids. It’s literally the same stuff your digestive tract uses to break down food.

The hornets subsist mostly on other insects, and are actually considered beneficial in farming areas, since they eat agricultural pests (though if you ask me, this is like keeping a feral lion in your house to deal with a mouse problem.)

A particular delicacy of the Japanese hornet is the Japanese honeybee. It take only about 30 hornets to massacre a hive of about 30,000 honeybees, the insects dwarfing their chosen targets. Afterwards they raid the hive for honey and tasty bee larvae.

The bees, however, have found a way to fight back. The bees will lure a hornet into their hive, and then trap the insect inside, forming a tight ball around the invader. The bees will then beat their wings, raising their metabolism as they exert themselves. As such, much like you start to warm up when you work out, the bee’s collective exercise raises their body temperatures, and thus the heat of the hive, up to temperature of 116 degrees Fahrenheit-- which is deadly to an insect of the Japanese Hornet’s size, and resulting in some bee-autiful justice.

The honeybees use oxygen and carbon dioxide builds up, suffocating the intruder within. It takes about 20 minutes for a hive to Easy-Bake a hornet, which is impressive, considering that if one ever invaded my home I’d simply go by the more drastic thermal route of burning my house down.

Here’s something even weirder: While bees themselves are prized for their sweet vomit (honey), the Japanese Hornets are also studied for their barf.

Asian Hornets regurgitate a proteinaceous ‘kiss’ of pure liquid digesta, known as Vespa Amino Acid Mixture (VAAM) for their young and their fellow nestmates, which acts as a source of energy. Certain companies tout this liquid as a miracle energy drink, as well as a metabolism-booster and a fat-burner. There are currently synthetic versions on the market, probably because there is nobody out there actually insane enough to raise a hive of these guys and hand-collect their vomit.

Then again, fried Japanese Hornets are actually served as a delicacy at certain restaurants. I suppose you should never completely count out a potential protein source, though this is one particular ingredient that I would prefer not to grow at home. Stay safe this spring, everyone!


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.