The Nasty Japanese Hornet

May 16,2012

This topic is going to be (for me) possibly the nastiest one about which I've attempted to write so far. Since spring is in the air, with its accompanying cedar dust and yellow sand blowing across the Pacific Ocean from the Mongolian copper mines and all manner of Chinese industrial pollution, it seems fitting to make an excursion into the shades and degrees of both real and perceived nastiness relating to the Asian giant hornet, known in Japanese as the 'suzume-bachi', or 'sparrow bee'.

Yes, I'm well aware that the beast is damn ugly.

Now, this beast first caught my attention when I moved from suburban Shizuoka to rural Hyogo after a brief return to California in the summer of '05. On being placed, due to circumstances beyond my control, in public housing for teachers and other temporary sojourners not meant to ever become part of the community, I determined to make the best of my lot starting with the weed jungle that constituted the garden beds out in front of that dreary tenement.

Weeding wasn't difficult--far easier indeed than the exhumation of ancient roots involved in the refurbishing of the garden beds of my current residence--but I soon became aware that the jungles were infested with burrowing hornets that dug in the garden soil like small dogs. Wikipedia reports that this beastie, 'colloquially known as the yak-killer hornet, is the world's largest hornet...body length is approximately 50 mm (2 in), its wingspan about 76 mm (3 in), and it has a 6 mm (0.2 in) sting which injects a large amount of potent venom'.

Now, before going further, there is a rumour circulating among the native English speakers in my social circle, that it's impossible to kill one of these bees because if crushed the dead insect will send out a special scent to some ridiculous radius around it that attracts every 'sparrow bee' in the vicinity to flash mob and sting to death whoever perpetrated the murder. I've checked with plenty of locals, and there doesn't seem to be any truth to this one at all. Sure, the sting is nasty, and about 40 people die each year from its sting, but almost all of these are due to allergic reactions, and the ones that aren't are from other complications.

The bottom line is you don't want it to sting you. We had some skirting around our garden and starting to build nests on the walls of the house. We sprayed the perimeter with anti-hornet dust that the drug stores sell with their own pump and canon that blasts hell out the things from a distance of up to thirty-metres.

But let me tell you the one thing that really does make the Asian giant hornet nastier than most other insects: trophallaxis. This behaviour is indeed one of the most important bonding mechanisms for social insects such as this hornet. It amounts to the reciprocal vomiting and drinking of vomit, done by mouth-to-mouth contact, to create a 'communal stomach' for the insects. Click on the link if you want to, but I have to warn you that the article features an image of an ant forcing another ant to suck down the puke directly from its mandibles. (The article mentions that this type of feeding sometimes substitutes dung for vomit and is done butt-to-butt, though it mercifully omits the colour jpeg.)

I hope that local expats reading this will, while being disabused of the mob swarm theory, will nonetheless realize that the hornet is not at all something you want to get to know personally.

Me, I'm off to buy another can of hornet-be-gone.

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