Praying mantis devours murder hornet

In Why Evolution is True, I begin the chapter on natural selection with the example of the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). I used that example because it shows both the amazing adaptations of animals, and it’s also a tale that wasn’t well known then.  But it’s better known now that the giant hornets have been found in the U.S., where the native honeybees are defenseless.  The hornets are pure bee-killing machines, two inches long, each capable of decapitating 40 bees per minute. But native Asian bees have evolved a a defense. As I said in the book:

The hornets are fearsome hunting machines, and the introduced bees are defenseless. But there are bees that can fight off the giant hornet: honeybees that are native to Japan. And their defense is stunning—another marvel of adaptive behavior. When the hornet scout first arrives at their hive, the honeybees near the entrance rush into the hive, calling nestmates to arms while luring the hornet inside. In the meantime, hundreds of worker bees assemble inside the entrance. Once the hornet is inside, it is mobbed and covered by a tight ball of bees. Vibrating their abdomens, the bees quickly raise the temperature inside the ball to about 47degrees C. Bees can survive this temperature, but the hornet cannot. In twenty minutes the hornet scout is cooked to death , and—usually—the nest is saved. I can’t think of another case (save the Spanish Inquisition) in which animals kill their enemies by roasting them.

There are several evolutionary lessons in this twisted tale. The most obvious is that the hornet is marvelously adapted to kill—it looks as though it were designed for mass slaughter. Moreover, many traits work together to make the wasp a killing machine. They include body form (large size, stings, deadly jaws, big wings), chemicals (marking pheromones and deadly venom in the sting), and behavior (rapid flight, coordinated attacks on bee nests, and the larval “I am hungry” behavior that prompts the hornet attacks). And then there is the defense of the native honeybees—the coordinated swarming and subsequent roasting of their enemy—certainly an evolved response to repeated attacks by hornets. (Remember, this behavior is genetically encoded in a brain smaller than a pencil point.)

Here’s a video showing the brutal attacks of the hornets on honeybees. The counterattack by bees on the hornet “advance guard” begins about four minutes in:

Several readers in the comments noted that this hornet can also take down praying mantids. But sometimes the mantis wins. Watch this mantis chomp down on a hornet, ingesting it in minutes. Look how the hornet tries to sting the mantis, but the mantis knows just where to grab it so that fearsome stinger can’t strike. (I do have my suspicions that the hornet was drugged or something, as it looks lethargic.

h/t: Barry


  1. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me when I was in college and a friend put a praying mantis in a terrarium with a wolf spider. Long time in their respective corners before the inevitable.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      The result would have a lot to do with who is bigger, and who takes the initiative. A first strike is a big decider.

  2. Trdi
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Well, I guess the final result depends, but I think the mantis is more often the prey than the predator in the nature…

    for example:

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      I’ll fix that. And I have suspicions that the hornet was drugged or something!

  3. ALe
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Not sure how true in general it is that these hornets are no match for a mantis. In this particular video, the hornet goes down, but there are numerous other youtube videos showing hornets destroying mantises.

    Here are a few:

    Based on youtube searches, it appears about 50/50 that mantises win or hornets win. I think it just depends on whether the mantis can get the hornet into the right position to ensnare it. If not, the hornet puts up a pretty mean fight.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

      Well, then, that provides a betting opportunity, doesn’t it?

  4. Andrea Kenner
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    I hope the North American mantises know how to do this!

  5. rickflick
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    …tooth and claw.

  6. Posted May 10, 2020 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Nice. I don’t want to watch the videos others shared; I wouldn’t want to see a mantis beaten…

    • Filippo
      Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:07 am | Permalink

      Well, I’ve seen a video of a mantis killing a hummingbird. I wouldn’t mind seeing a hornet kill that mantis.

      • Posted May 11, 2020 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        Nature can seem so brutal; much of it is difficult to watch. Once I saw a video of a seal on a sheet of ice and an orca placed its upper body on the ice to make the seal slide off; the seal tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid being killed.

  7. JezGrove
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    My sister-in-law had honey bees living in her roof in northern Spain last summer, and those hornets were preying on them. The hornets are huge, and hover outside the entrance to the bees nest waiting for a victim to emerge. Still a problem this year, although I think she and her husband are making and distributing hornet traps.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if there can be an exclusion guard that prevents the giant hornets from entering the nest. They could still slaughter outside, but they can’t enter.

      • JezGrove
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        While I was watching, the hornets didn’t attempt to go inside. They just seized a bee as it ventured out and carried it off. At one point, the bees seemed to be mounting a spirited defence outside the entrance but sadly it came to nothing.

      • JezGrove
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Doh! It looks like the hornet species I was watching was likely Vespa velutina:

      • Charles Minus
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        I’ve heard it reported at another source (SGU) that there are meshes in use that are too small for the hornet and big enough for the bee.

  8. Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I live in Washington and have not yet seen a giant hornet. However, I have noticed this spring a scarcity of bees. I hope that is not a bad sign.

  9. Jenny Haniver
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    The brief excerpt from your book describing the Asian giant hornet in an evolutionary context is IMHO a superlative piece of writing. It is, as you write, “a twisted tale,” a gripping and elegantly told narrative that conveys the essential information economically and without sacrificing the integrity of the science, which, after all, is what it’s all about.

    That said, to descend from the sublime to the ridiculous, I couldn’t help imagining this as the subject of a lurid, low-budget 1940s-1950s, Roger Corman style horror film, which,second only to early Dracula, Mummy, and Werewolf movies, are my favorite kind of horror flick, such as “Attack of the Wasp Woman,” “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” “The She Creature” “The Naked Jungle,” stuff like that.

    • JezGrove
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      Reminds me of The Swarm – a hot contender for the worst movie ever, especially considering its starry cast (Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda…) all of whom should have known better!

      • BJ
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

        “…should have known better!”

        You say that, but Michael Caine (among many other fine British actors) was famous for his refusal to turn down a good paycheck. Of Jaws: The Revenge, Caine famously remarked, “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

        • JezGrove
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 4:17 am | Permalink

          Great quote – thanks! Yes, I assumed they must have been well paid for their efforts.

        • sugould
          Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:43 am | Permalink


    • BJ
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      I always find interviews with Corman hilarious just because of the juxtaposition in my mind of his elocutionary oratory and his ridiculous films.

  10. Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Following my thesis that there is only one type of personality in the universe that we share with animals, birds and some insects (therefore aliens will be unpredictable and just like us)… I have enjoyed visiting mantisses, and watch them closely. Instead of them watching our hands, as many creatures do out of fear of an attack, a mantis will often stare at our face. Why should that be? Is it in expectation of some kind of communication? Perhaps when we finally come across aliens, we should send mantisses to open a dialogue with them.


    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      I’ve kept many mantises. There is nothing like them. On occasions while watching them they would suddenly swivel their head and look back at me. It is not objective, but I do get the feeling that they are trying to figure out if I am small enough to eat.

      • sugould
        Posted May 11, 2020 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        Grade school science class once gave up mantis eggs to hatch. Once emerged they were so tiny and cute… and helpless.

        A countop spider went after them, and so I added protection. Then they grew very quickly and soon got the best the house spiders.

  11. Posted May 10, 2020 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I am curious how such collective behavior evolved absent group selection. Bees routinely mob hive intruders, so I guess it is the evolution of vibration behavior that needs to be explained. Did some colonies contain bees more likely to vibrate their bodies, and those colonies survived more than non-vibrators? Is that group selection, or perhaps with haplodiploidly one should view the colony as the individual.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      I’d guess (and it is my own guess) that the hive is essentially an individual in terms of evolution, not a group.

  12. Ruthann L. Richards
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Couldn’t find another way to get info to you–do you know there is a great blue heron in the pond? has been scoping it out since about 3:10 Chicago time, now actually in pond.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      Uh, chicks are heron food.

      • Jenny Haniver
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        Roughly around the time the heron was sighted at the pond, though I didn’t see it, I did see two intrepid ducklings, little black blobs, circumnavigate the pond on their own. They left the mother nesting in the grass and set out for themselves. The drakes didn’t bother them nor any predators. I bet they have stories to tell the rest of the ducklings about their excellent adventure.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see it there now.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I was headed to the pond as a reader called me. If you see a heron anywhere NEAR the pond, even if it’s not in it, call me. I will email you my phone number. Someone drove it away, thank Ceiling Cat!

      I was home and was getting in my car to go back when I was given an update that it was gone.

      • Posted May 10, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        You need red-winged blackbirds. Ours would mob herons in the wetland but once a heron did get a chick and all hell broke loose. I hope you can keep it away. Find its nest and continue harassing it (if your wildlife laws permit).

    • Robie
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      I noticed that the On Botany Pond web site features a large picture of a heron right next to a picture of a duck family (!) and said that the heron had “moved in” one year. I hope today’s is just passing through.

  13. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Saw the joke yesterday: If they had a good lawyer, they’d be manslaughter bees.

  14. Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Hornets appear to be quite intelligent. I have had a lot of them in my Conservatory this hot Spring. They fly closely for a second or two to take a close look at me. Unlike all other flying things, including small birds, they seem to remember the tiny window or hole in the wall by which they entered, and have no trouble going back to it to leave. They don’t want to pick a fight with me, and just want to be left alone…typically French! But I had a recent Asian hornet that seemed agitated and uncomfortable in my presence.

    • Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      Here we have bald-faced hornets. Not as big as the European ones, but still pretty intimidating and they make impressively large nests. They have this reputation for being aggressive at the nest but over recent years I have grown to think they aren’t that bad. On a few occasions I learned later how often I walked right next to a nest in the woods, and never knew it because they just let me be.

  15. Posted May 10, 2020 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    So Dr. Coyne: Knowing nothing about this, and even though I know you can’t mix species and end up with a new species that reproduces, I was wondering whether there are any new ways for biologists to make a viable hybrid European/Japanese bees to protect North American colonies.

  16. normwalsh
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    These odious hornets were discovered on Vancouver island earlier and a colony south of Vancouver just north of the Washington state discovery. People are after them.

  17. normwalsh
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    So how’s the distribution of chicks today?

    • George
      Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

      From what I have seen, pretty random. Essentially, one large brood that the mothers have limited control over.

      • George
        Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

        Right now (5:43 pm) three drakes on the pond which are getting along. Ducklings all over the place. Some up on the sidewalk with a mother, some in the water with the drakes. I don’t think the ducklings listen to their parents that much. I doubt they got flowers for their mother (even if they knew which one was their mother) for Mother’s Day.

  18. CP
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    There are many mantis spp… The outcome probably depends on relative size of individuals and which species. The “winning” mantis is proportionately larger and a different species than the “losing” ones in the attached videos.

  19. Robie
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    I knew I had heard or read about these bee-decapitating hornets at some point, but could not remember where. Mystery solved; it was in WEIT, several years ago.

  20. Posted May 10, 2020 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

    I remember those paragraphs very well. Excellent book!

  21. openidname
    Posted May 10, 2020 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

    Why is the vibration necessary? Why can’t the bees just sting the intruder to death?

  22. eedwardgrey69
    Posted May 11, 2020 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    See? Praying DOES help! 😉

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