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Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia)

Detailing the physical features, habits, territorial reach and other identifying qualities of the Asian Giant Hornet

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Image Credit: Yasunori Koide, taken in Japan (public domain)
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Image Credit: KENPEI, taken in Osaka-fu, Japan (public domain)
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Currently a newsmaker, the so-called Murder Hornet has now been identified in both Canada and the United States.

Updated: 01/02/2022; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©www.InsectIdentification.org
The world's largest hornet, the Asian Giant Hornet is native to Japan, but has established itself in nearby countries like Thailand, China, Nepal, and Russia. In 2019, its first known arrival to the North American continent occurred in British Columbia and adults have been found in Washington. Sometimes referred to as a 'Murder Hornet' in North America, it has a powerfully painful sting that has caused approximately 40 deaths per year in Japan according to a researcher (Yanagawa) at the National Defense Medical College in Japan. That is fewer than the number of annual deaths seen in the U.S. from bees, and the use of the 'Murder Hornet' moniker is discouraged. Those allergic or sensitive to venom are not the only ones that experience serious effects, so the health risk is high for any person stung by it because this large hornet is able to inject a greater volume of venom per sting than smaller hornets and bees. The recovery time for those stung by the Asian Giant Hornet is much longer than any North American bee or hornet requires, and hospitalization may be necessary to manage the body's reaction to the venom. Scars may develop at the sting sites. (ref: University of Florida Entomology and Nematology, May 2020)

Nests are built in the ground, usually in abandoned rodent burrows, and stinging encounters occur when a person unwittingly steps on or near the nest's opening. The defensive reaction by the hornets is aggressive and intense. For this reason, hunting down the nests is hazardous work. In winter, only queens remain in the nest and they leave it in spring to search out a new nest home to build a new colony. A queen will raise the first group of workers, feeding on tree sap. Over the course of the next 4-6 months, the size of the population grows to almost 100 hornets in a nest. Once males are bred and mate with the queen, most inhabitants leave or die, and the population diminishes until only overwintering queens are left.

While new queens feed on tree sap in early spring, eventually workers seek out insect prey and by the end of summer, honeybees are the preferred food source. This dietary shift can result in monumental problems for agriculture as the honeybee is a critically important pollinator in North America. In a mid-air attack, the large hornet kills a honeybee and takes only its thorax back to the nest as a meal. If a honeybee hive is near a hornet nest (within 8 km or 5 miles), it may experience an attack at the hive. If more than 3 hornets attack a hive at one time, the hornets stay all day, dismembering as many bees as they can and will return daily to continue to slaughter and consume the hive's population, including bee larvae and pupae. (ref: Penn State Extension, 06 May 2020). Stinging encounters occur among people approaching a commandeered beehive. Conventional bee suits are ineffective at stopping the long stinger from penetrating it and thicker, more specialized gear is necessary to safely approach a nest of hornets or infiltrated beehive.

Efforts aimed at controlling and eliminating the Asian Giant Hornet are already underway in the Pacific Northwest. These include the use of chemical insecticides and poison baits, as well as traps and screens to help protect beehives. If sightings of this hornet are made in the Pacific Northwest, do not approach a suspected nest and leave the area immediately. In the eastern and southern part of the continent, this hornet is often mistaken for the European Hornet, an Eastern Yellowjacket, or a Southern Yellowjacket. The Asian Giant Hornet can grow to be over 5 cm (2 inches) long. Size alone is a fast way to narrow down the identification of it, but it should not be the only characteristic used to confirm what it is. The Asian Giant's head is wide and the face is matte orange-yellow. A plate between the eyes has a scalloped or ruffled bottom, but do not approach a live specimen to verify this. Antennae are medium brown with yellow bases. A large mandible (jaw) has black tips. The thorax, or middle section, is dark. Wings are a smoky gray color. The abdomen is brown with straight orange-yellow bands, lacking any tear-drop or arrowhead designs. Legs are brown. Only females have a stinger, and it is narrow and almost 1 cm ( 0.4 inches) long. Contact the Invasive Species Council of British Columbia or the provincial government in Canada, or the Washington Department of Agriculture or county extension in the U.S. if a hornet sighting is made in these areas.©InsectIdentification.org

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General Characteristics

Capability, Shape, Texture/Pattern, Benefits, Dangers
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Taxonomic Hierarchy

Species Breakdown
Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Arthropoda
    Class: Insecta
      Order: Hymenoptera
        Family: Vespidae
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          Genus: Vespa
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            Species: mandarinia

Identifying Information

Size, Colors, Features
Scientific Name: Vespa mandarinia
Other Name(s): 'Murder Hornet'; Sparrow Hornet
Category: Bee, Ant, Wasp and Similar
Size (Adult; Length): 40mm to 51mm (1.57" to 2.00")
Colorwheel Graphic Colors: black; yellow; orange; red
Descriptors: large; huge; enormous; stinging; flying; painful; banding; invasive

Relative Size Comparison

Typical Size Between 40mm (1.6in) and 51mm (2.0in)
Lo: 40mm
Md: 45.5mm
Hi: 51mm

Territorial Map*

U.S., Canada, and Mexico
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Prince Edward Is.  
* MAP NOTES: The territorial heat map above showcases (in red) the states and territories of North America where the Asian Giant Hornet may be found (but is not limited to). This sort of data is useful when attempting to see concentrations of particular species across the continent as well as revealing possible migratory patterns over a species' given lifespan. Some insects are naturally confined by environment, weather, mating habits, food resources and the like while others see widespread expansion across most, or all, of North America. States/Territories shown above are a general indicator of areas inhabited by the Asian Giant Hornet. Insects generally go where they please, typically driven by diet, environmental changes, and / or mating habits.
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