Firefighters, police officers, and local villagers in northwest China have recently been locked in an unusual but deadly battle. They have been fighting swarms of giant Asian hornets—poisonous insects that sting—that have attacked residents of the area.
These are no ordinary stings. Over the past three months, at least 42 people have died, and more than 1,600 have been seriously injured by giant-hornet attacks in Shaanxi Province, where most of the hornet strikes have taken place.
Extermination teams have been fighting the hornets with flames and chemicals that are deadly to the insects. The workers locate the nests during the day, and then come back at night to destroy them while the hornets sleep. Authorities say more than 4,500 nests—each one home to about 1,000 giant hornets—have been destroyed.
SURVIVING A KILLER-HORNET ATTACK
Many of those who survive the hornet attacks spend weeks in the hospital being treated with medicines to remove the poison from their bodies. The stings also leave wounds that doctors have to stitch closed.
The Guardian reported that Mu Conghui, a 55-year-old from the village of Ankang in Shaanxi province, was stung 200 times while working in her rice field.
“These hornets are terrifying—all at once they flew to my head, and when I stopped, they stung me so much that I couldn't budge,” Mu told China’s state news organization.
GIANT, FAST, FEARSOME
The Asian giant hornet is the world’s largest known hornet. It is about one-and-a-half inches long, and queens can grow to be just over two inches long—about the size of a human thumb. The hornets have stingers one fourth of an inch long that can sting multiple times and deliver poison to their prey (an animal or insect that is hunted and killed by another for food).
The huge hornets are big enough to eat praying mantises and other large insects. But their main prey is the honeybee. The hornets attack beehives and steal the baby bee larvae (wormlike young insects) and honey to feed to their own hornet larvae back at their nest.
WHY ALL THE ATTACKS?
Scientists think there are a number of reasons the Asian giant-hornet attacks are on the rise. The weather has been quite dry this year, and dry weather helps hornets to grow.
More people have moved into the hornets’ traditional habitat, or home in nature. The more people there are in the area, the more likely it is that hornets and humans will clash. The increasing human population has also lowered the number of predators, such as the spiders and birds, that feed on the giant hornets.
Asian giant hornets are mainly found in eastern Asia. Scientists say it is unlikely that the hornets could ever make it to Western Europe and North America, because the distances they would have to travel are much too far.