Scared of killer bees? They’re mere wimps compared to this horror.

By Steve Bender
May 27, 2020
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Credit: Alastair Macewen/Getty Images

No, you’re not looking at the world’s deadliest insect. That honor rightfully belongs to the mosquito. It kills more than one million people a year by transmitting diseases like malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever, and encephalitis. But you might well be looking at the world’s scariest six-legged beast. Dubbed the “murder hornet” by media types who delight in spawning panic to increase ratings, the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is a nightmare for other insects and a royal pain for you if you tick it off.

Queens hornets measure in at about two inches long with thick, yellow-and-black striped abdomens. They and their workers, who are somewhat smaller, come equipped with two fearsome weapons. The first is a pair of gigantic, saw-edged mandibles used for tearing prey to bits, chewing it up, and returning it to the nest to feed hungry larvae. The second is a monumental stinger capable of repeatedly penetrating a beekeeper’s protective suit and delivering whopping doses of venom.

So, in a transparent effort to stoke your angst and keep you reading longer, let me discuss the damage these weapons can do at greater length. Among the giant hornet’s favorite dinnertime fares are honeybees. A scout hornet will discover the location of a honeybee nest and report back to HQ. A raiding party of hornets descends on the bees and begins tearing off their heads and cutting them in two. Bee stings don’t faze the marauders. In minutes, hundreds of honeybees lay dead or dying. The hornets then rob the nest of its larvae, grind them into little protein balls, and fly back home.

A giant hornet doesn’t limit its menu to bees, however. It eats lots of other creatures, things you wouldn’t expect it to attack. I watched a video in which one of these giant hornets encountered a full-grown praying mantis in a tree. Without hesitating, the hornet rushed the mantis and bit off its head. A more recent video surfaced pitting the two insects in a rematch. This time, the mantis won. But if you look closely, the giant hornet apparently had been drugged to keep it from flying away. The mantis seized it from behind as it groggily stumbled around. This is cheating, mantis fans.

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If the hornet hadn’t been high, it might have employed its frightful, ¼-inch long stinger. It uses this to paralyze prey and also defend the nest. This is usually dug into the ground with a single entry hole. Stumbling upon one is very bad karma. Angry hornets sting repeatedly, injecting a venom that is reportedly the most painful of any insect. I watched another video starring a guy of somewhat dubious sanity who purposely gets stung by various things to decide which packs the most painful punch. A giant hornet was pressed to his arm, stung him, and he screamed in absolute agony. Almost immediately, his entire forearm swelled like balloon and he said it felt like being injected with liquid fire. This was his worst sting ever, he affirmed, even more painful than that of the infamous bulldog ant. This guy should be handed a Darwin award.

One sting won’t kill the average person unless they’re allergic, but it will hurt like bloody hell. One can expect a necrotic lesion at the sting site. People stung many times do die, however. Japan suffers about 40 hornet-related deaths a year.

Now you understand how it got the nickname, “murder hornet?” What if I revealed that you very well may be its next victim? Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

“No” is correct. Asian giant hornets are native to Japan and southeast Asia (thank the Lord) and there’s a pretty wide ocean called the Pacific between us and them. A couple of hornet queens were discovered this year in Washington State and British Columbia (probably hitched a ride on a ship), but they were exterminated. Relax.

Relax until I tell you that another giant hornet, the European giant hornet (Vespa crabro), does live here and delivers a sting that feels like a gunshot.  Compared to its Asian cousin, this one is slightly smaller (queens are about 1-1/2 inches long) with a reddish-brown face instead of a solid yellow one. It usually builds nests inside the hollows of trees, but sometimes decides on sheds and attics.

If you chance upon a nest, make peace with your Maker, run away quickly, and call an exterminator. Unlike other hornets, European giant hornets are active at night and attracted to lights. You may want to turn off that porch light from now on.