Skip to main content

Asian Murder Hornets: Only Murderous if You’re a Bee

Written By | May 10, 2020
asian murder hornets, bees, hornets, edimology

WASHINGTON: Murder hornets are on their way. Panicked Americans are setting traps and killing honey bees, wasps, and other insects in self-defense.

What is a murder hornet?

Self-defense from what, exactly? The Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia magnifica, is impressive. It’s the world’s largest hornet, with queens reaching lengths of two inches or more. Most workers are closer to an inch-and-a-half.  Its stinger is up to a quarter inch long and can inject a large amount of venom.

Multiple stings can kill you.

However, hornet stings kill only 30 to 50 people in Japan every year. By contrast, in the U.S., insect stings kill an average of 62 people per year. These “murder hornets” aren’t particularly murderous.

Unlike the red paper wasp (Polistes carolina) common in the U.S., you must provoke Vespa mandarinia into stinging you.

The red wasp seems to sting you just because it can.

The “murder” hornet doesn’t murder people; it murders bees. When one finds a beehive, it releases pheromones to attract others. They attack and destroy the bee colony quickly, decapitating the residents. A single hornet can kill 40 bees in a minute. When the bees are dead, the hornets eat the honey and take the bee larvae back to their nests to feed to their own larvae.

Does its sting hurt?

Dr. Justin Schmidt is an entomologist who has been stung by just about every insect you can imagine, and by some, you’d prefer not to imagine. He created a stinging insect pain chart to describe the nature and intensity of different insect stings. Because insect venoms are complex cocktails of toxins, enzymes, and other components, the stings don’t all hurt the same.

Some produce blinding but brief pain and others, long-lasting misery.

For instance, Schmidt describes the sting of the western honey bee as,

“Burning, corrosive, but you can handle it. A flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye and then sulfuric acid.”

The sting of the velvet ant is,

“Explosive and long-lasting, you sound insane as you scream. Hot oil from the deep fryer spilling all over your entire hand.”

It isn’t the length of the stinger that decides the pain, but the nature of the venom. Size matters less than what’s injected. The “murder” hornet is five times the length and 20 times the weight of a honey bee.

Yet according to Schmidt, the pain of the Asian giant hornet sting is about as intense and long-lasting as the pain of a honey bee sting. That is, they both produce a pain intensity of 2 on his 4-point scale, and in both cases the pain lasts for about ten minutes.

In a world beset by Coronavirus, global warming, and the clash of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, we’re already stupid enough.

Why worry about these hornets, then?

Pain, as Schmidt notes, is subjective. The injury you see coming often hurts worse than the same injury out of the blue. Pain comes with style points. And “murder” hornets certainly have style. Something 20 times the size of a honey bee is going to hurt you more than a honey bee, no matter what the scientists tell you.

But that’s not the problem.

The problem is the bees. Honey bees have been in trouble for years, though colony collapse disorder – once considered a major killer of bee colonies – has declined. Pesticides and loss of wildflower habitat may have also weakened bee colonies.

And bees are essential. Native bees are important pollinators for native plants, and European honey bees are essential for the pollination of many of our cultivated fruit and vegetable crops.

Native bee species in Asia have developed defenses against Vespa mandarinia; European honey bees and bees native to the Americas have not. If Asian giant hornets become established here, they present a threat to agriculture.

But so far they’ve been found only in a small area of Washington state.

Yet people across the country are worried about them, and for the wrong reasons. They’re afraid for themselves and their families and pets. Even if the hornets were established across the country, the threat from, say, COVID-19 would be thousands of times greater. Most Americans seem totally at ease with COVID-19.

Again, it’s all about the bees. And the traps people are setting out attract not just giant hornets (which aren’t even here yet), but also bees. They’re killing bees out of fear of a hornet that is dangerous because it’s a threat to bees. The absurdity of that would impress even Camus.

Go eat a hornet

The people of Japan and other Asian countries get along just fine with their giant hornets. Not only are they not terrified of them, but they also find them delicious. They roast them on skewers and eat the larvae steamed with rice. According to the New York Times, the roasted hornets are “light and crunchy. They leave a warming, tingling sensation when eaten.”

If you don’t trust the NYT, at least trust me that their recipes are usually excellent, and their writers probably know a thing or two about eating grubs and stinging insects.

Don’t be afraid of Vespa mandarinia. Your author hasn’t been stung by as many insects as Dr. Schmidt, but I’ve been stung by enough to know that his scale and descriptions are spot on; the Asian giant hornet is no velvet ant. It’s all subjective, of course, but fear makes us stupid.

In a world beset by Coronavirus, global warming, and the clash of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, we’re already stupid enough.

Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.