Friday, September 23, 2005

The Encounter with the Asian Giant Hornet

Devo, of Vitriolic Monkey fame, has been encouraging me to post about the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). This large hornet (pictured above attacking a caterpillar of unknown species) is aggressive and relatively common in Japan. Though it is easily confused with the yellow hornet (Vespa simillima), the size and thorax markings allow for identification confirmation.

Over the course of five days, I saw at least twenty Asian giant hornets just outside Nagoya, Japan. These high numbers gave me pause; initially, I second guessed the species but, after some online research, I've determined that the hornet I was seeing was indeed Vespa mandarinia.

One encounter with the species stands out. On a particularly sunny morning, as I was walking to the World Expo grounds, I elected to take a shortcut through a forest path in the Nagoya suburb of Seto. The path was landscaped and well tended; even the inset dirt steps were topped with a layer of loose gravel.

As I neared the trail's end, I noticed a young Japanese man ahead of me. He stood casually, smoking a cigarette while he contemplated the last hundred yards of the path. I smiled as I approached, nodded, said 'Konnichiwa,' and moved to pass him, but he extended his arm, blocking me. I looked at him quizzically, and, because he correctly presumed that I didn't speak Japanese, he made wild gestures uphill, toward the path's end. Making sure I continued to watch him, he then brought his arms to his sides and fluttered his hands. He resembled, I thought, a wounded chicken. "Bird?," I asked, confused (and a little amused). I opened my arms wide and slowly flapped to pantomime my guess. He shook his head vigorously. He again imitated the wounded chicken and said something in Japanese. Perhaps he was warning me of mosquitoes, I thought. (The mosquitoes were bad in Seto. Sometimes I was bitten multiple times while I slept.) "Mosquitoes?" I asked. No reply. Instead, the man extended his arm, pulled back the shirt sleeve and proceeded to use his other hand to attack his flesh repeatedly, stabbing at it like one of Hitchcock's birds. Now, even more confused by the surprise game of charades, it occurred to me that the man may simply be crazy.

I looked hard up the path, hoping that I might spot an injured goose or something that might explain the man's bizarre behavior. In fact, roughly thirty yards from where we stood, a number of large insects buzzed low over the ground. Aha! Stings, I realized with satisfaction, not bird attacks!

I'd not yet read of Vespa mandarinia, so I didn't know that their sting was described as "a hot nail through my leg" by Tokyo based entomologist, Masato Ono, or that they kill a few people in Japan each year.

I turned back to the man and nodded, making a buzzing sound and offering my own colorful interpretation of the "I'm-being-stung" routine. He smiled, happy that I finally understood him. Suddenly, though, he bolted uphill, sprinting up the dirt and wood stairs just a few feet from where the hornets busied themselves. Astonished, I watched as two hornets peeled away to pursue him. The man's white shirt allowed me to more easily track the large hornets as they chased him to the top of the hill. Once he reached the summit, the man turned back and waved. I gestured frantically, waving my arms, trying to communicate what I'd seen. I don't know if he understood my wild antics but, in any case, he spotted the hornets as they descended upon him. He yelped and ran out of my field of vision. I waited about thirty seconds before deciding that I should head back to main road to take the normal route to the Expo. After all, many hornets remained, busy near what I assumed must be their nest.

Just I started to retreat, however, I heard a shout from above. Turning around, I saw my mime friend, beaming. Apparently he'd avoided harm! I waved at him with a big smile. That smile disappeared, though, when the man motioned for me to follow his example. Nervously, I looked back at the hornets.

So the spry Japanese guy had bounded past the vespids with minimal problem. Still, the insects had pursued him. Would my six-foot, lumbering frame get me past the aggressive hornets without incident? The man motioned for a second time and yelled something that I didn't understand. Alright, I thought, unshouldering my backpack, let's do this.

I'm happy to report that my run was a success. Though taller and slower than my new Japanese friend, my legs allowed me to take two, even three steps at a time and, when you fearfully assume that huge, angry hornets are chasing you, your legs really perform. When I reached my new friend at the trail's end, he smiled broadly and laughed. No hornets had tailed me.

We turned and walked alongside one another in silence. He lit another cigarette. I declined his offer to join him with a mumbled, 'Arigato' and a gracious wave of the hand. At the next corner, we parted ways with simple nods.

I saw hornets on many occasions while in Japan, but I'm not sure that all the sightings involved Vespa mandarinia. Some of the hornets may have been Vespa simillima, as they seemed smaller and more yellow than orange. The hornet killing the caterpillar, though, and those guarding the Expo shortcut were definitely Vespa mandarinia.

Knowing what I do now, I may have hesitated more before charging uphill. A "hot nail" through my leg ain't my cup of tea, especially considering that hornets and wasps, unlike bees, can sting their target repeatedly.

When I was six or seven, I was cruelly rebuked by a dozen or more paper wasps (Polistes sp.). I remember leaning over to pick up my bucket under the hose loop and, suddenly, being in pain. By the time I realized what was happening and streaked for the house, the angry bastards were chasing me. Once safely indoors, under the care of my mother, I saw that the wasps had stung me between ten and fifteen times. While I greatly admire the Hymenoptera order (ants, wasps, and bees), I respect their territory and fear reprisal should I mistakenly encroach. I'm thankful that the hornets didn't punish me that morning in Seto..very, very thankful.

Photo credit: 2005, Hungry Hyaena


Michael said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael said...

Yeah, funny how the body can kick in to overdrive to save the day. Once I was poking at a rubbish pile with my dog (Loki who you remember well), when a torrent of 'flies' started pouring out. I thought 'How odd,' and then was 20 feet away. Just like that, no conscious thought.
Loki, the old general, just grumbled along after me. He was covered in hornets, but entirely unscathed.
Still... a hot nail in the leg? No thank you.
BTW, cool photo.
I've seen alot of these guys getting mauled by wasps recently (but in a very different way... scroll down for the 'before' photo).

Devo said...

Yeah, man... those suckers seem like no joke whatsoever. I saw a special on National Geographic while you were gone, and thought it odd how Japan seems to be a breeding ground for giant, fearsome creatures. Between Godzilla, V. mandarinia and Kaiju Big Battel, I'm convinced they truly DO have majical growing powder over there. Combine that with the magic of the ninjas, and bingo bango, there's Japan in a nutshell. I envy your good fortune, HH.

And good work on not taking a hot nail through the leg! That sounds truly ouchy.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Um...something about parasitic vespids simultaneously excites me no end - in an almost sexual fashion - and repulses me. I saw this picture a few days ago, when I first read your comment, and for the last two mornings I awoke thinking about parasitism and wasps. No joke. Alarm goes off and I'm thinking about wasps. Odd. One recurring thought: My, how those caterpillars covered in parasites look chewy and sweet.


Kaiju Big Battel...I missed it last it came through and I now regret that. If they should grace us with their presence again, I will make sure to save the date.

Michael said...


DankPow Tom said...

Whats up bud, above is my myspace url if you want to see what I'm all about. I kid you not, saw one of those suckers in Massachusettes. It attacked a june bug mid-flight, crashed to mydriveway viciously trying to rip it a knew hole, besides the ones God gave it. I got real close and tryed to (cell phone) photograph it, but it quickly dragged its catch into mymoms garden, under the leaves to chow down in private. Sorry no picture. I hope people don't turn this into a fish / Japanese Hornet that got away story, because of sites like yours i am 100% convinced of what I saw.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Thanks for stopping in, Dankpot Tom.

The large hornet you saw in Massachusetts is not one of the Japanese bohemoths I describe above, but rather one of our native species, the Cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus). I am always shocked by their size and predation skills. Fortunately, they tend to avoid conflicts with us humans and for this I am grateful!

No need to doubt yourself. You saw exactly what you think you did. They're impressive insects.

john foster said...

what is up y,all????

john foster said...

I fuck you

Bob Foster said...

Giant Hornet's sting feel like a burning nail impaling your skin!!!!Stay away from them.

Anonymous said...

I just seen a giant hornet in Melrose, Massachusetts today. It sounded like a bird flapping is wings and was about the size of my pinkie finger. It was the biggest flying insect I've ever seen. It had x wing fighter from star wars looking wings and it's head was the size of a small chick pea. It was dark colored and food not have the yellow bands but dark dark orange and black stripes with a hairy black back and dark yellowish orange head. I grabbed my cat, ripped my sister of the chair and ran indoors because ten minutes earlier I had just watched the national geographic documentary on them and how they have spread to China and figured all the import we get from China and my sister was looking at me like I was fucking nuts, I didn't say a word to her. Lol. Just ripped her and basically carried her a few feet on one arm and threw her in the house while grabbing my cat and doing the same