asian giant hornet

The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia): What do we know about it?

Among the numerous exotic invasive organisms that have reached Europe and America, Asian wasps and hornets are some of the most commented on mass media, social networks and naturalistic forums. The Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) got Europe and, posteriorly, the Iberian Peninsula, becoming one of the greatest headaches for beekeepers and administrations as it is a very insatiable species. However, there exists an insect that concerns Westerner beekeepers even more than the Asian hornet: the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia).

What do we know about this species? Is it true is has been found in The West or is this a mere unfounded rumour? Keep reading to learn some more.

The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia): What do we know about it?

During my recent travel to Japan, I met face to face for the first time with one of the most amazing insects: the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). Meeting this organism really inspired me to write this post.

The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is a hymenopteran native to the East and Southeast of Asia especially abundant in rural landscapes of Japan. Until recently, it was considered that the Japanese giant hornets belonged to an independent variety or subspecies (Vespa mandarinia japonica); however, this category is currently invalid.

Among the ‘true hornets’ (species belonging to the Vespa genus), the Asian giant hornet is the biggest worldwide. Workers of this species span between 3.5 to 4.0 cm long, whereas queens can reach a length between 5.0 to 6.0 cm, even more in some cases, and a wingspan of 3.5 to 7.5 cm depending on the specimen. A monster compared to the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina), which has a body length between 2.0 and 3.0 cm (3.5 in queens).

Vespa mandarinia Natural Museum of Natural Science Tokyo
Specimen of Vespa mandarinia (left) deposited in the main exhibition of the National Museum of Natural History of Tokyo, Japan. Picture by Irene Lobato Vila.

In fact, in Japan this species is commonly known as オオスズメバチ (oosuzumebachi), which can be translated as ‘sparrow wasp’.

How can we distinguish it from other related species?

The Asian giant hornet is easily recognizable and is distinguished from other Vespa species by its large size, as well as by having an orangish yellow head that can be seen even when the organism is in motion (and that differs from the rest of the body, which is darker), a well-developed clypeus and a very wide face seen from the front.

Face of Vespa mandarinia. Modified from the original picture took by Gary Alpert, CC 3.0.

In addition, and unlike the Asian hornet (V. velutina), it has darker legs (yellow in V. velutina) and the abdomen or metasoma with alternate yellow and black stripes (abdomen almost black, with the fourth segment yellow, in V. velutina).

Vespa mandarinia male
Vespa mandarinia. Picture by Yasunori Koide, CC 4.0.
Vespa velutina
Vespa velutina. Picture by Francis ITHURBURU, CC 3.0.

The Asian giant hornet is very similar to the European hornet (Vespa crabro). However, it can be easily distinguished from this species by the above-mentioned traits.

Comparisson Vespa
Vespa mandarinia (above), Vespa crabro (below, left), Vespa vulgaris (below, mid) and Vespa germanica (below, right). Picture by @carim_nahaboo on picbear.org.

Besides the genus Vespa, the Asian giant hornet must not be confused with Megascolia maculata, a very common species of the Scoliidae family in Europe and Middle East that ranges from 2 to 4 cm.

Megascolia maculata. Picture by gailhampshire, CC 2.0.

Behaviour and biology

Nesting

The Asian giant hornet is an eusocial species (a colonial and hierarchical organism, with coexisting sexual and asexual stages and with a strong sense of parental caring) that inhabits mainly in rural landscapes, on hills and low forests. In addition, it is the only species within the genus Vespa that nests almost exclusively in holes in the ground, rarely inside buildings. These can be pre-existing cavities (left by rotten roots, abandoned nests…) or, in contrast, holes made by the hornet itself.

During the reproductive season, V. mandarinia is especially aggressive and territorial, and workers will not hesitate to attack if they feel threatened. The mating season of this species takes place in autumn, so we must take this into account be aware when entering their habitats (during our climbing of Mount Misen, in Itsukushima (southern Hiroshima), we encountered several of these hornets…and they did not seem very happy to see us there!).

Mount Misen
Way to the top of Mount Misen (Itsukushima, Japana), V. mandarinia habitat. Picture by Irene Lobato Vila.

Vespa mandarinia workers often fly 1 to 2 km from their nest, but can travel up to 8 km. Thus, they will not hesitate on chasing a victim several kilometres if necessary.

Food habits

Vespa mandarinia is a very insatiable species, even more than its relative V. velutina: it preys on a wide variety of insects, including honey bees and other eusocial wasps. Moreover, it is a dominant species and it is not threatened by other organisms except by humans, so currently there are no efforts to conserve this species.

The voraciousness of the Asian giant hornet is an enormous headache for beekeepers, since a single hornet can end up with up to 40 to 50 bees. Besides, it is the only eusocial wasp to stage group attacks to beehives and other eusocial wasp nests. These attacks are divided into three phases:

  • Hunting phase: solitary workers wait near the beehive or nest and capture prays in flight. These preys are brought to their own nests to serve as food for their larvae. This phase has an unlimited duration.
  • Slaughter phase: between 2 and 50 workers gather in the beehive or wasp nest entrance, which has been previously marked with a chemical secreted by another worker. Then, a slaughter begins. In contrast to the previous phase, now hornets ignore the dead bodies of their preys. If the attack stretches on during a long time, hornets can start to starve.
  • Occupation phase: hornets become territorial and defend the hive from any possible attack. Meanwhile, some workers capture the conquered hive’s larvae to feed their descendant and their queen.

The European honeybee (Apis mellifera) has been widely imported to Japan since the Asian native honeybee (Apis cerana) is less productive. Unfortunately, the European honeybee is defenseless against V. mandarinia as it has not developed any evolutive defensive mechanism like A. cerana did.

Take a look at this video to learn more about the defensive mechanisms of the Asian honey bee, which was also commented on this post:

Sting

Females of Vespa mandarinia have a stinger about 6mm to 1cm long with which they inoculate a large amount of venom. It is precisely the volume of venom injected and not its composition that makes the Asian giant hornet especially dangerous.

Between 30 to 50 people die due to Asian hornet attacks each year in Japan, thus being the most lethal organism in this country followed by bears and venomous snakes. A single sting can require from primary medical assistance or even hospitalization, and it can cause anaphylactic reactions even in non-allergic people if the amount of venom inoculated is large enough (due to a single or multiple stings).

Warning
Warning sign in Enoshima (Kanagawa, Japan). Picture by Irene Lobato-Vila.

Has this species arrived in The West?

Vespa mandarinia has not settled in The West for now. Recently, it has been confirmed the first nest of this species found in Vancouver, Canada, which was eradicated according to sources of the Agricultural Ministry. Excepting this isolated case, there have not been new records of V. mandarinia in Western countries, so the supposed records of this species resulted from misidentifications.

Despite this, administrations are on the alert because V. mandarinia could arrive in The West like V. velutina did in 2004. For example, in Spain it was included in the Spanish catalogue of invasive species, even though it is not settled in this country, as it is considered a serious potential threat for native species as well as for apiculture.

.          .          .

Will we see V. mandarinia in The West someday? We hope no…

Main picture by Yasunori Koide, CC 3.0.

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