Asian Giant Hornets

Close-up of Asian giant hornet
Asian Giant Hornet Classification
Class: Hexapoda (Insecta)
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Vespidae
Genus: Vespa
Species: Vespa mandarinia

Asian giant hornets are the largest known species of hornet.[1] 

Vespa mandarinia, the scientific name for Asian giant hornets, is derived from the Latin word for “wasp,” vespa, and the English word “mandarin,” a Chinese official’s nickname, as well as a type of orange and a color that is similar to that on the Chinese official’s uniform.

The Asian giant hornet is known in Korea as the “general officer hornet,” and its Chinese name means “giant tiger head bee” as a result of its coloration.

Vespa mandarinia, which includes the Asian giant hornet, belongs to the genus Vespa, which is in the family Vespidae. A wasp is part of the Hymenoptera order, and all Hymenoptera make up the class Hexapoda, which includes insects.

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    Why Are Asian Giant Hornets Called "Killer Hornets?"

    The Asian giant hornet is also called the “killer hornet” or “murder hornet” because its stingers contain venom capable of killing humans if they are stung multiple times by multiple wasps.

    A giant hornet’s name is also derived from the fact that it feeds on other insects as prey and as a result is a predator in the animal kingdom.

    Due to the fact that Asian giant hornets are known predators of honey bees, it is imperative to limit their introduction to the United States and Canada. Honey bees are a significant pollinator in temperate climates.

    To protect their nests, many honey bee types in Asia have developed a technique to kill Asian giant hornets. A large number of honey bees surround the Asian giant hornet [3] and vibrate their wings quickly in order to generate heat.

    This effectively cooks the Asian giant hornet, leaving it dead. The technique is only effective when the honey bees outnumber the hornets, but it can protect Asian honey bees from a single Asian giant hornet.

    Where Can Asian Giant Hornets Be Found?

    As a species, the Asian giant hornet is found in most parts of Asia and Eastern Russia, including Vietnam, India, Japan, Thailand, Korea, and the Chinese mainland.

    The Asian giant hornet is a cause for concern when sighted in the United States, as it could become an invasive species. Between 2019 and 2021, Asian giant hornet nests were sighted in Vancouver, Canada, and Washington State.

    Because Asian giant hornets depend on green space for nesting materials, they are rarely found in urban areas.

    Additionally, Asian giant hornets prey on other insects, which is why they prefer to nest near bee hives and beetle nests.

    In the United States or Canada, every sighting of an Asian giant hornet should be reported to local authorities, as nests need to be destroyed as soon as possible.

    Ecosystems can be adversely affected by invasive species such as the Asian giant hornet. A brand-new type of predator is introduced in this case against which native species are unable to develop a defense.

    How to Identify an Asian Giant Hornet

    The most common way to identify Asian giant hornets is by their enormous size. Workers and drones of Asian giant hornets are usually about one and a half inches in length, whereas queen hornets are larger than two inches in length.

    Although female Asian giant hornets are slightly larger than males, they are otherwise similar, with the exception of the males’ lack of stingers. The female Asian giant hornets have stingers that can measure up to one quarter of an inch in length.

    Both sexes of Asian giant hornets have light orange heads and brown antennae. Their eyes are dark in color, and they have large mandibles at the base of their faces that are used for digging.

    An Asian Giant Hornet next to a fly for size comparison
    A bright orange head makes it easy to identify Asian giant hornets. However, to avoid confusion with the similarly looking Eastern cicada killer wasp, look closely at the chin and cheeks as these are larger on the Asian giant hornet.

    The Asian giant hornet has a wingspan of up to three inches, and its wings are dark brown or gray in color.

    Asian giant hornets have yellow and dark brown or black stripes on their abdomens. Their thorax, the part between their heads and abdomens, is dark brown or black.

    There is a possibility that Asian giant hornets can be mistaken for Eastern cicada killer wasps or other large species of hornets. The Asian giant hornet, however, has a larger chin and cheeks compared to these other species.

    Where Do Asian Giant Hornets Live?

    Asian giant hornets typically live near forests and mountains in low-lying areas, rather than high-altitude areas and open plains.

    It is common for Asian giant hornets to nest in the ground, both digging their own tunnels and adopting those that have been left by rodents such as chipmunks and squirrels.

    Nests of Asian giant hornets may extend as deep as 24 inches into the ground, and resemble small rodent holes.

    Asian giant hornet nest with two hornets at nest entrance
    Due to their common nesting location in the ground, Asian giant hornet nests are quite difficult to observe. This poses a problem for those who wish to remove them from a given area.

    As Asian giant hornets dig into the ground, they may leave small piles of dirt and debris around their nest entrances.

    The Asian giant hornet is a social species, which means that it nests communally and has a queen. Several different types of hornet live in one nest together, and each one plays its own role in the colony.

    How Big Is an Asian Giant Hornet Colony?

    In a typical colony of Asian giant hornets, there are approximately 100 workers and one queen.

    What Do Asian Giant Hornets Eat?

    Asian giant hornets eat smaller insects such as wasps, bees, and beetles. In particular, Asian giant hornets pose a threat to honey bees, which are essential pollinators.

    In addition, Asian giant hornets are known consume mantises and may even cannibalize their own colonies.

    As adults, Asian giant hornets are only capable of digesting liquids, which means that they feed on the blood and other juices of bees and wasps.

    In contrast, the larvae of Asian giant hornets can consume solid protein, so the adults collect protein-rich parts of other insects, such as muscles, and chew them into a paste.

    During this process, Asian giant hornets dismember their prey in order to select only the protein-rich parts to bring home to chew into a paste [4].

    A group of Asian giant hornets
    It is primarily found in Asia, but Asian giant hornets are now establishing themselves in Europe. With honeybees contributing billions of dollars to the European economy, this invasion of Asian giant hornets poses a substantial threat.

    Since Asian giant hornets consume crop pests, they are sometimes considered beneficial to agriculture. Nonetheless, their overall impact in the United States is quite negative because they prey upon other bee and wasp species that are essential pollinators.

    The large mandibles of the Asian giant hornet, which are used for biting and chewing, allow it to kill large numbers of honey bees at a time. Due to the heavy armor of the Asian giant hornet, honey bee stings are not harmful to them.

    Honey bees and other species of bees and wasps must be protected from Asian giant hornets to prevent widespread pollination failure.

    Do Asian Giant Hornets Pollinate?

    The Asian giant hornet pollinates one particular type of plant: the Mitrastemon genus. The plant is parasitic and native to the same areas where Asian giant hornets live.

    Since the Asian giant hornet pollinates only one specific parasitic plant and consumes other pollinators, it negatively affects pollination.

    Do Asian Giant Hornets Make Honey?

    Due to the fact that Asian giant hornets have other food sources, such as other insects, they do not make honey. In order to provide food for its colony, Asian giant wasps kill and collect the body parts of other insects.

    Asian giant hornets are quite normal in their lack of honey production since most species of wasps do not produce honey.

    Even though Asian giant hornets do not produce their own honey, they are quite willing to steal honey from honey bee nests to supplement carbohydrates during the breeding season.

    Do Asian Giant Hornets Sting?

    A female Asian giant hornet is the only one that is capable of stinging, as unlike males, females possess stingers. Female Asian giant hornets use these stingers to inject venom into their victims.

    While the venom of the Asian giant hornet is not the most lethal of all wasps, it is extremely dangerous because of the large amount of venom injected during one sting.

    In general, Asian giant hornets are not aggressive, which means they will not sting unless they feel threatened or their nest is in danger. 

    This is why Asian giant hornets should be left alone when they are observed. If an Asian giant hornet appears in an area where they are not indigenous, they should be reported to the local authorities.

    Do Asian Giant Hornets Cause Damage?

    If introduced as an invasive species into areas where they are not native, such as North America and Canada, Asian giant hornets may have devastating effects on local ecosystems.

    The Asian giant hornet is not a major threat in areas where they are native, since other species have evolved mechanisms for protecting themselves from the hornets.

    It only takes one Asian giant hornet queen to wreak havoc on a beehive. Especially in regions where giant hornets are not native, these bees lack evolved defensive mechanisms.

    As Asian giant hornets prey on other insects, they could eliminate the pollination forces of honey bees and other insects in temperate North American regions. This could lead to widespread agricultural collapse.

    Reproduction & Lifecycle of Asian Giant Hornets

    The lifecycle of the Asian giant hornet is similar to that of other social wasp species. Asian giant hornets have a hierarchy system in which queens are ranked in order of dominance, and they feed in that order.

    The highest-ranking Asian giant hornet queen has the first opportunity to feed, obtaining the best sap, and then the second-ranking queen has a turn, and this continues until the lowest-ranking queen gets the least desirable sap.

    After the Asian giant hornet queens have spent about two weeks feeding on oak sap, those of them who are fertilized will begin searching for nests. Those Asian giant hornets who remain unfertilized simply continue feeding and then die off in the following months.

    The inseminated Asian giant hornet queens build their nest, digging into the ground and creating small brood cells where it lays its eggs.

    As the queen hornet feeds its larvae on protein-rich parts of other insects, they develop into worker hornets. These Asian giant hornet worker hornets begin to take on the responsibilities for foraging for food about two months after they are full-grown.

    Once the Asian giant hornet workers are full-grown and fully ready to take on foraging responsibilities, the queen begins to stay inside the hive and focus simply on laying eggs and feeding its larvae.

    By early August, about three to four months after the queens emerge from hibernation, the Asian giant hornet nest is typically fully developed.

    At this point, it contains up to 500 brood cells and 100 individual worker Asian giant hornets. Up until this point, the queen Asian giant hornet has been focused on laying fertilized eggs that will develop into workers.

    Once the worker force of the Asian giant hornet colony is developed, the queen begins laying unfertilized eggs that develop into drone hornets, as well as laying further fertilized eggs intended to become future queens.

    In the fall, the queen Asian giant hornet stops laying eggs and focuses its attention simply on raising the larvae that will develop into drones and new queens. 

    In mid-fall, the new male drone Asian giant hornets and the new queens emerge from their nests, ready to mate.[5] After they leave the nest, these Asian giant hornets do not return. Instead, they focus on their mating efforts. 

    When Asian giant hornets mate, the male drone hornets wait for the queens to come out of the nest, hanging around the nest entrance. 

    When the queen Asian giant hornets emerge, the males fly up to them and lower them to the ground and then mate for 8 to 45 seconds. 

    Up to 65% of queens fight off the male Asian giant hornets’ attempts to mate, and leave unfertilized. 

    Whether fertilized or not, the new Asian giant hornet queens hibernate through the winter. The Asian giant hornet male drones, the past season’s workers, and the old queens all die off in the winter. 

    The new queens remain in hibernation until around mid-April, when they emerge and begin the cycle anew.


    [1] Wikipedia [2] Dictionary [3] Earth Sky [4] NY Times [5] PennState

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