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‘Murder Hornets’: What You Need to Know

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The Asian giant hornet’s nickname — the Murder Hornet — does not do it any favors. As if there wasn’t enough going on in 2020 to worry about, media reports alerted us all to the threat posed by the Vespa mandarinia. What do we need to know?

Where are they, usually?

Vespa madarinia is the largest hornet in the world. They have orange and black markings. You can usually find it in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and even in the far eastern portions of Russia. Even there, you’d have to look in low mountains and forests. The Asian giant hornet eats insects, tree sap, and honey produced by colonies of honey bees.

How big do they get?

It’s big, we’ll give it that. The body of a giant hornet can reach 1.8 inches long. Its wingspan can reach three inches wide. Its stinger alone can be one-quarter of an inch long. That is twice the length of the stinger on a typical honey bee.

What about the sting?

First thing first. Getting stung by any bee of any kind does not feel good. Second thing second. For some people with allergies or particular vulnerabilities, any bee or insect sting is a threat. Having said all that, what does it feel like to be stung by a Murder Hornet? And how dangerous is it?

Getting stung by a Murder Hornet hurts. According to Masata Ono, an entomologist at Tamagawa University in Japan, it feels “like a hot nail being driven into my leg.”

A Murder Hornet injects mandaratoxin into its victims. Mandaratoxin is a neurotoxin that is dangerous to humans at high enough doses. When does it start to get serious? If you have an allergy, you should take precautions to avoid any bite and seek medical attention after any bite, just as you normally would. If you don’t have an allergy, you should seek medical attention if you’ve been stung more than 10 times. If you’ve been stung more than 30 times, emergency medical attention is in order.

There’s no point sugar-coating it. People have been killed by stings (a process called envenomation). Statistics are a little bit dated and far-flung, but there are reports that 41 people were killed (and 1,600 people injured) by Asian hornet stings in Shaanxi, China in 2013. In most cases, deaths were related to anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction. Sting victims who died were stung an average of 59 times. Sting victims who were stung an average of 28 times survived.

Let’s try and get a little perspective. According to Floyd Shockley, entomology collections manager at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, we shouldn’t be too worried.

“More people die of honey bee stings in the U.S. than die annually, globally, from these hornets. About 60 to 80 people die from [allergic] reactions to honey bee stings [in the U.S.]; only about 40 people die per year, in Asia, mostly in Japan, from reactions to the [giant hornet] stings.”

Vespa mandarinia in the United States

In September and December 2019, unusual-looking hornets with orange and black markings and an unusually long stinger were seen near Blaine, Washington, and in British Columbia, Canada. Entomologists confirmed they were Vespa mandarinia. Speculation is that they were accidentally transported here after being trapped in shipping containers from Asia.

The threat to honey bees

Experts are more concerned about the Murder Hornet’s threat to honey bees than to people. The giant hornet got its unfortunate nickname from its upsetting habit of crawling into honeybee hives and ripping the heads of bees.  Honey bees, already at significant risk in North America, have no natural defense to the Vespa mandarinia. Mass attacks on honeybee colonies would pose a significant additional threat to honeybees that pollinate nearly 100 different agricultural crops.

How worried should you be?

You don’t want to get stung by any bee. Getting stung by a Murder Hornet will hurt worse, but won’t pose a significant health risk unless you’re allergic or are stung over and over and over. In addition to people with allergies, the most worried people should be beekeepers who, far and wide, are considering alternatives to protect their hives. Beyond people with allergies and beekeepers, anyone who relies on pollinators should be concerned. Since that’s every one of us who eats food, this is a story that is worth paying attention to — but not panicking over. If it helps, keep in mind that the Murder Hornet is also a delicious snack!

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