Attack of the Asian Giant Hornets
Though hornets make a valuable contribution by helping to keep insect populations in check, they've never received the kind of favourable treatment reserved for some their fellow flying stinging species. Beehives are usually preserved and treated as a precious resource, while hornet nests are often destroyed on sight.
Of course, the hornets have made it clear that they're not particularly fond of us either; and in the Far East, there's an even larger, more aggressive species of hornet to contend with. Measuring 50 mm in body length with 6 mm long stingers and a venom capable of dissolving human tissue; the Asian giant hornet has been especially prevalent in rural China of late.
Already responsible for an estimated 40 deaths a year in Japan, recent encounters with giant hornets in China have caused 41 fatalities and around 1675 injuries in the space of three months alone, leading the media to dub the species “giant killer hornet.”
Of course, human settlements aren't the only ones that need fear the giant killer hornet. An increase in hornet activity could have devastating impact on local honey bee populations, which would in turn have serious ramifications for the ecosystem as a whole.
The Asian giant hornet - which can fly at speeds of 40 km per hour - spends the day scouring the land for bee hives to raid. When a scout discovers a suitable target, it plants a pheromone at the entrance to summon reinforcements - the arrival of which will spell doom for the unfortunate bee colony. Honey bee stings are useless against their armoured bulk, and the hornet's powerful mandibles can tear through approximately 40 bees in a minute.
The result is a honey bee massacre, with a group of 30 or so giant hornets obliterating a colony of 30,000 bees in a matter of hours. Were the Asian giant hornet to be unleashed on European honey bee populations, the slaughter would be apocalyptic. The European honey bee has no means of defending itself against such rampant destruction.
Their Japanese cousins, on the other hand, have developed a cunning defence mechanism. Upon sensing the presence of a hornet scout, they immediately crowd together inside the entrance of the hive and await its approach. When the hornet enters to complete its reconnaissance, the bees suddenly swarm all over it and begin rapidly vibrating their wing muscles, encasing the intruder in a sheath of heat energy that gradually roasts it alive. The scout will tell no tales, and the bees dispose of it without expending their precious stingers.
Authorities Respond to Hornet "Epidemic"
Of course, humans have a more straightforward method at their disposal: the flamethrower. In rural Ankang, the authorities wait for nightfall before setting out to exterminate the hornet nests, as the hornets will be inactive during this time. Around 248 nests were discovered in the township of Hongshan alone, many of which were in close proximity to schools and roads.
It's been suggested that the warmer temperatures have allowed a greater number of Asian giant hornets to survive the winter, bringing about a sudden increase in hornet population numbers. Frequent human incursions into formerly undisturbed rural areas have also been mentioned as a possible contributor to the rise in hornet activity.
Whatever the cause, Ankang officials have described the growing number of hornet-induced fatalities as “tantamount to an epidemic.” Between 2002 and 2005, hornet attacks in Ankang caused an average 36 deaths per year. The recent death toll has reached over twice that number.
One such victim was Yu Yihong, a farmer in Yuanba village who was stung to death after accidentally stepping on a hornet's nest; and in the Guangxi Zhuang region, 23 children and 7 adults were injured when a swarm of hornets attacked a primary school.
In Ankang, rice farmer Chen Changlin saw a cloud of hornets envelop a woman and child, who later died from the venom. He was himself pursued by the hornets for about 200 meters as he ran to get help.
Authorities are doing all they can to alleviate the crisis, and the Ankang government claims to have destroyed 710 hives in their attempts to reclaim the countryside from the rampaging hornet swarms.