National Geographic News
Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia

The giant hornet is native to East and Southeast Asia.

Photograph by Alastair Macewen, Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Brian Handwerk

National Geographic News

Published October 4, 2013

The world's biggest hornet is wreaking havoc in northwestern China, where 42 people have died after being swarmed and stung in Shaanxi Province, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Some 1,600 others have been injured since the outbreak of the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) began in July, the regional health authority reported, and attacks continue even as local authorities take action, including destroying hundreds of hives and improving medical treatment for victims. (Watch a video of "hornets from hell.")

"The problem with this particular hornet is that it's big, sort of thumb-sized, and it packs a lot of venom," said entomologist Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis.

"And its nests get fairly large, including maybe several hundred individuals. They are aggressive, they are predatory, and they have been known to kill and eat an entire colony of honeybees," she said.

At 1.5 to 2 inches (4 to 5 centimeters) long, the giant hornets are found across many parts of East and Southeast Asia and are especially well known in Japan. They're among the more dangerous venomous insects of their type, Kimsey said, though others, like Africanized bees and yellow jackets, can cause similar problems.

Bee-Loving Hornets

While the hornets don't typically swarm humans in such numbers, they're well known for their ability to quickly decimate a hive of thousands of honeybees, leaving behind a trail of severed heads and limbs.

The hornets routinely fly miles from their nests and employ scouts to locate a bee colony and then mark it with a special pheromone that attracts their allies to attack, destroy, and occupy the hive.

With their huge size advantage, the hornets typically make short work of the bees, unless the victims are able to eliminate the advance scout before it can summon others. They sometimes do so with an incredible defense—swarming the hornet in a ball and literally cooking it to death.

Often, however, the bees and other insect victims become fodder for the growth of the hornet hive. Adult workers chew their victims' flesh into a nutritious paste that feeds larvae, which in turn produces saliva that serves as a powerful "energy drink" to be consumed by adults who cannot digest solid protein.

Why Are Hornets Attacking People?

It's unclear exactly what factor or factors has led to the hornets' deadly season of human attacks.

Huang Rongyao, an insect expert with the Forestry Bureau of Ankang City, told Xinhua that local vegetation growth has increased hornet habitat, and that two months of hot weather have made the insects much more active. Ankang is one of the cities most affected by hornet attacks, along with Hanzhong and Shangluo.

Hua Baozhen, an entomologist at China's Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University, pinpointed a decrease in populations of the insect's natural enemies like spiders and birds, while other experts speculate that urban sprawl simply means more people are living in what was formerly hornet country.

Kimsey noted that this type of behavior is often seen with invasive species, though she's not sure if the hornet is native to the region or how long it may have been there.

"What we see happen when you get a newly introduced species is that it may sort of go along relatively unnoticed for years, but then eventually you see a huge outbreak. We have that happening in California, where the European paper wasp was introduced 20 years ago, and now suddenly it's an outbreak and they are everywhere."

If the hornets are in fact natives, Kimsey added, this year's weather probably does play a major part in the outbreak. "In that case I'd suspect that they had a very mild winter and spring, so that a lot of queens survived and consequently they now have many more nests than they normally would have."

That scenario also has parallels in the U.S. she added, like the western yellow jacket, whose numbers have risen to "spectacular" levels in California due to recent milder weather. (Also see "Stinging Wasps Moving North Due to Warming?")

Mating Season

In addition, autumn is mating season for hornets, which can make them more aggressive, particularly toward the end of the process, UC-Davis's Kimsey said.

"Right now if it's getting towards the end of the season, they are irritable. They are not producing a new brood, and there are a lot of workers not doing much of anything."

Once a queen has been fertilized, a typical hive begins to shut down with the approach of cool weather; the workers will die off while the queen finds a place to overwinter.

Xinhua reported that hives in the region typically go dormant by December, though attacks are expected to taper off sooner, perhaps by the end of the month. In the spring, hornet queens will begin new nesting colonies with offspring numbering in the thousands.

Deadly Attacks

In the meantime, staying well clear of the hornets is the best route to safety, experts advise, but that's often easier said than done.

The insect often locates nests underground or even on buildings, which puts them directly in human territory. Disturbing them or merely passing too close for the hornets' comfort can unleash a fierce retaliation. Some attacks seem especially unprovoked. In September, Xinhua reported that a swarm attacked a school in southern China, injuring 30 people—all but one of whom had to be hospitalized with multiple stings.

"If you inadvertently disturb a nest, they will come out en masse and you could get lots and lots of stings," Kimsey said, noting that the insect is proving deadly in much the same way a swarm of Africanized honeybees might. (Watch video: "Beware the Giant Hornets.")

"Even if you're not allergic, the amount of foreign protein that circulates in your blood after so many stings can cause kidney failure. It's like sepsis, and if you don't get on dialysis you can die.

"People are probably dying because they aren't receiving the appropriate treatment in time," she added.

"And many Chinese doctors probably don't know exactly how to treat this problem, just as many doctors wouldn't in this country."

62 comments
Shane Kitchen
Shane Kitchen

Not a good time to be in the counterfeit Bee spray business, people gonna be mad when s*** don't work good

LeRoy Barnes
LeRoy Barnes

I just found 12 of these nasty buggers in a package of puppy pee pads I bought at Walmart!  All of theme were ALIVE!   one stung me and my hand was HUGE  thank GOD for Benadryl and Epinephrine.     I think I may move.  

J.a. Jackson
J.a. Jackson

Let's hope they stay in that part of the world.

Arturo Quintero
Arturo Quintero

its like something out of a movie, man... nature is crazy.

C ODonnell
C ODonnell

Judging by the size of these franken-sects maybe Chinese air defense could help.

michael g.
michael g.

I would not want to get stung. buy one of those.

Coyote Marten
Coyote Marten

While at an upcountry party in Kula, Maui in '82, my daughter was stung by one of these eight times. If not for intervention by a friend who happened by and was an MD, she would have died of the stings. That hornet was about  4cm long. Nasty little devils, those!

Albert Rendal
Albert Rendal

thanks for the useful info....lets be careful...

Charles Molins
Charles Molins

OK, so they got off to a slow start. If these hornets want to take over the planet, they're going to have to do a better job than that! Go Hornets!

antoinette amegbletor
antoinette amegbletor

Very informative article. 

I do hope measures are taken to prevent deadly attacks.

The doctors in the region in my opinion should be trained to effectively deal with the victims.

As this article enumereted how this insects (Vespa manderiana) behave, all must know about it to take preventive measures. I will share this on my face book page right away.


Joel Edwards
Joel Edwards

People got to take more care in where we decide to develop new communities.  Insects just like many other species on this planet have been here (habituating) longer and we have to take mind in where we expand, with this ever growing population.  Doctors also have to be more aware of the dangers faced by the communities they practice in.

Laylla Willow
Laylla Willow

I love how I can't see the video because of my country's location. -.-

Lau Vulc
Lau Vulc

Hy there "experts". I was bitten by one of this giant hornet, and I'm not living in China! I'm from Eastern Europe, Romania. This hornets are widely spread across my country, and you can see them from april to november, especially in the countryside. These creatures are highly venomos and can be lethal if  you are allergic to it. My doctor said that you could die in 2-4 hours. If you are not allergic, you can be cured as I was and the treatment is almost the same as the one for a snake bite (not every kind of snake). Before i was treated with antivenom, i was felling kind of dizzy, like i was trippin'...my hand doubled it's size in the area of the sting (no joking)

Btw, they do not attack if u don't harm them. 


Paul Rose
Paul Rose

Surprise, surprise, yet more human encroachment! 

Michael Clarkson
Michael Clarkson

They sound pretty devastating. I can understand the struggle to defend against these. Any sign of these in Europe?

Leo Kretzner
Leo Kretzner

Maybe they heard the results of the last IPCC report, or are reacting to the huge amounts of pollution in the world. 

Perhaps some nests could be gifted to Koch Brothers Industries, congressman Jim Inhofe and Rush Limbaugh.

Shadia Mohamed
Shadia Mohamed

this is the first time i hear about this animal , but really i enjoyed in reading this article , the info are so great 


El Gabilon
El Gabilon

Is it our imagination or are other insects and animals attacking humans moreso than in the past. Sharks for example and African bees. We will not be surprised to find that man has somehow played a part in this as with the african bees, the brown snake in Guam. The writer does not seem to know where they came from. Is a hornet as large as this a natural phenonamen or has human activity such as research played a hand in their size and agressiveness.  Many invasive species have invaded because of the carelessness of scientists experimenting with studying them. Of course some species invade because they have "hitched" a ride on a ship or plane, or have been carried by storms to new habitats. Stricter controls are needed or else a catostrophic event such as all of the birds being eliminated from Guam because of the brown snake. EXTREME CAUTION IN SCIENCE IS NEEDED.

safia dirie
safia dirie

its the first time i have ever hear about this animal where it live exactly.because im scared?


Andy Hill
Andy Hill

Wow -- thumb-sized.   A garden-variety bald-faced hornet in the US is only half that size, and packs a pretty nasty wallop.  If those suckers are swarming people, I'm surprised so few have died...they make 'em tough in China.

NanJing Wang
NanJing Wang

胡蜂比较牛逼,遇到了赶紧还是逃命吧。。。这货可不是蜜蜂。。。这货是胡蜂,比马蜂都牛逼的胡蜂!!!!西安人为陕南被蛰同胞默哀~~~TAT为啥会在陕南出现胡蜂啊,坑爹。。。

antoinette amegbletor
antoinette amegbletor

@Laylla Willow maybe the device that has to capture the signal so you are able to view the video is not instuled in your country,just like mine. I experience this all the time too. I live in Subsahara Africa,

Fergus McDapperchap
Fergus McDapperchap

@Lau Vulc Dude.... its not the same creature... yes you have a species of giant wasp, but from my experiences in traveling europe, and asia the two off them arnt the same, I could hear the Euro's from a good distance and avoided them in asian no warning BAM and a lady and myself were attacked and I was luckily stung only once.

The Euro is for the most part placid, the Asian giant is a .... less friendly affair.

Hritcu Stefan
Hritcu Stefan

@Lau Vulc It's not the same species, though...

If what you're saying is true, the species that you're referring to is Vespa crabro, a very dangerous type of hornet as well!

                          "Trust me, i'm a biologist!"

Fergus McDapperchap
Fergus McDapperchap

@Emma Garcia Yes, public citizens deserve to die for the industries of other persons..... 

You might want your moral compass realigned.

Jennifer L.
Jennifer L.

@Emma Garcia This is the most sickening and ignorant comment anyone could possibly make. No one deserves to die. By extension do you mean all French people should die for foie gras? All Americans should die for cruelty and horrid conditions in meat farms? All Africans should die for poaching? Following your logic I guess the entire population of Earth has a reason to "deserve" death. If that's your mentality, well ma'am, I suggest you see a doctor ASAP. (Fortunately, seeing as you're from Boston, don't worry! There are countless world-class doctors nearby. I'm sure someone can fix you.)

gwyn Davies
gwyn Davies

@Emma Garcia Does anyone deserve to die. I appreciate that the marketing industry for things like this is bad but people have got to make money, if you don't like it then do something about it. No one truly deserves to die and if you think that then you do to. 

James Weir
James Weir

how pathetic.  what do you deserve?

Michael McCarty
Michael McCarty

and us Americans probably deserve an equally disruptive epidemic for the meat market we create. right?  just like there are informed people here who choose to deviate from the norm, well, since People in china are People as well, like, with like, free will? there are People there who choose differently as well.  don't project one problem across an entire nation of people.

Lucy Zhao
Lucy Zhao

@Emma Garcia People all make mistakes. Those dead Chinese people don't deserve it because they contributed nothing to elephant ivory and so on. Be sympathetic.

jane polacek
jane polacek

@El Gabilon  lived in guam several yrs.the brown snakes had a devastating affect.no more native birds.a pity.

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

@El Gabilon these hornets are native to asia, they are just appearing in larger numbers than before.

Wang F.
Wang F.

@NanJing Wang 我擦,你汉语都来了。。。。。。。我是宝鸡人民,竟然没有在中国的报纸和新闻上看到这个报道??????你是哪里人啊哥们??相遇这里真是缘分!!!

Lau Vulc
Lau Vulc

you are right Stefan, thanks for your answer 

NanJing Wang
NanJing Wang

@Wang F. @NanJing Wang 中国报纸上面这种东西多的出奇。。。。。我是来逛nat geo发现居然上了这里才留言的。。。

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