The Asian giant hornet

In WEIT, I begin the chapter on natural selection with a particularly gruesome example of an adaptation: the predatory Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarina), the world’s largest wasp and a viscious killing machine.

They are horribly fricking huge, with a two-inch body (tipped with a quarter-inch stinger that injects a potent venom) and a three-inch wingspan. Their stings kill several dozen Asians yearly. Here’s what they look like:

mandarinia2

Fig. 1. Vespa mandarina on a brave Homo sapiens.

I won’t recount the whole story here, except to say that a small band of these wasps, incited by a single scout wasp, who finds a nest and marks it for doom by depositing a drop of pheromone that attracts its confreres, can decimate a colony of 30,000 Asian honeybees in a few hours, decapitating the hapless bees with their slashing jaws. They then raid the bee colony of honey and grubs, which they bring back to their own nests to deposit in the maws of their own voracious larval wasps. Here’s a video of a wasp raid:

But the local honeybees have evolved a marvelous counter-adaptation: they mob the first scout wasp that tries to mark the beehive with a pheromone, covering the wasp with a thick ball of bees that vibrate their abdomens, raising the temperature inside the ball so high that the hornet is cooked to death (the bees can survive that temperature). Here’s a video of the cooking process:

As one might expect, the introduced European honeybee, which hasn’t coevolved with the Asian wasp, has no counteradaptation.

A relative of the hornet, the not-quite-so-dangerous species Vespa veluntina (also a predator of honeybees) , has invaded Europe in the last few years, as reported this week in the Telegraph:

The bee-eating hornets, instantly recognisable by their yellow feet, are rapidly spreading round France and entomologists fear that they will eventually cross the Channel and arrive in Britain.

Hundreds of the insects attacked a mother on a stroll with her five-month-old baby in the Lot-et-Garonne department, southwestern France, at the weekend before turning on a neighbour who ran over to help. The baby was unharmed.

They then pursued two passers by and two Dutch tourists on bikes. The victims were treated in hospital for multiple stings, which are said to be as painful as a hot nail piercing the skin

. . .The Vespa velutina, which grow up to an inch in length, is thought to have arrived in France from the Far East in a consignment of Chinese pottery in late 2004.

So far the honeybees in Europe, like the European honeybees in Asia, have no defenses against the wasp. It will be interesting to see if, over time, they evolve a cooking behavior (or, in the case of some honeybees in Cyprus, a variant in which a mob of bees surrounds the wasp and suffocates it by preventing it from expanding and contracting its abdomen).

11 Comments

  1. Posted August 22, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Double yikes.

    • Posted August 22, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      I wonder if they’re members of the Christian Wasp Coalition.

  2. newenglandbob
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    1. Why would anyone let Vespa mandarina crawl over one’s hand?

    2. I like the Metallica music but I have seen a better video than that one on a honey bee colony slaughter.

    3. I do like the slow-roasting video.

    Question: what do the giant hornets usually eat? Is it only honey bee honey and grubs or other nourishment?

  3. JefFlyingV
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    Are these the same wasps that are attracted pheromone of the orchid Dendrobium Sinense, Hainan Island China?

    They are nasty looking beasts.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I’ll admit to being fascinated by wasps, never being stung by one. I’m not too anxious to find out either. 😮

    [They have a sweet mandible though.

    As a boy I had a glass of lemonade in the sun, then falling asleep, whereupon a wasp landing in my face woke me. When I had the presence of mind to shut my mouth, she placed herself over it and instead inspected the insides of my nose for the source of the sweet smell.

    Steadily increasing my breath had her bug(ger) off.]

  5. bueller007
    Posted August 22, 2009 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    I lived in Japan for some time, and I often saw these miserable pricks when I was out hiking.

    They’re called oosuzumebachi in Japanese, and they’re scary as shit. I fucking hate them.

    From what I understand, a single sting can temporarily paralyse you if it doesn’t kill you. Multiple stings and you’re dead for sure.

  6. Posted August 22, 2009 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    Great videos Jerry, love that music.

  7. Posted August 23, 2009 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    But natural selection is God’s way of furthering moral progress, so this all has to be wrong. Surely.

  8. Doc Bill
    Posted August 23, 2009 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    “oosuzumebachi” translates into English as

    “aaaaaaauuuuuuggggggghhhhhh!!!!!!!!!”

  9. Posted August 23, 2009 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    So far the honeybees in Europe, like the European honeybees in Asia, have no defenses against the wasp.

    That’s not quite true. They have domesticated humans. Seriously.

  10. Posted May 24, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    That’s the biggest honest I ever saw


2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] biologist Jerry Coyne on what happens when these creepy alien invaders descend upon the backyard honey bee’s […]

  2. […] of two species of honeybees that are likely to be the wasp’s prey.  (I posted on such bee-eating wasps a few days ago.)  The paper is short and easy to read; it should be accessible to the […]

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