Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

The Hornet among Us

Magazine article WLA ; War, Literature and the Arts

The Hornet among Us

Article excerpt

The Japanese giant hornet is not the largest insect in the world, but perhaps the most fierce. It can grow to two inches in length, with a wingspan of three. It has a brown thorax, and a yellow and brown striped abdomen. Its mandibles are jagged, lined with sharp, incisor-like protrusions. Its eyes are large dark holes, which make it seem alien, some thing that has no place in our ordered world.

It can fly 60 miles in a day, at speeds of over 25 miles an hour. Its wings beat about 1,000 times a minute. It can lift more weight, relative to size, than any of us can imagine. Its stinger is a quarter of an inch long, and barbless, which means it can sting repeatedly. Its venom can melt human flesh. The venom is loaded with at least eight different chemicals, some of which damage tissue, some of which cause pain, and at least one that's sole purpose is to attract other hornets to do more stinging.

Here's how the hornets work: scouts zoom around, searching for honey bee hives. This is all they do, from when they wake in the spring to when they hibernate in the fall. When a scout finds a hive, it leaves pheromone markers around it, which draw other hornets. When the others arrive, they begin systematically slaughtering the bees. A Japanese giant hornet can kill 40 honey bees in an hour. A nest of Japanese giant hornets, around 30 or so, can destroy an entire honey bee colony in a few hours. The hornets seize the bees one by one and literally slice them apart. They cut off their heads and limbs and wings and keep the juicy, most nutrient-rich parts, which they chew into a paste to feed to their larvae. They eat the bees' honey and devour their young. They do not take over the bees' hives or carefully consume all they have killed. They take only the flight muscles and other juicy bits and leave the heads and limbs lying around.

Hornet's nests are founded by a queen in a dark sheltered place, either underground or in the hollow of a tree. The fertilized queen creates cells from chewed-up treebark and lays an egg in each cell. The queen spends her entire life laying eggs. The eggs transform into larvae, and the larva spin silk over the openings in their cells. In two weeks they complete metamorphosis and hatch. The first generation are workers. They hatch from fertilized eggs, and are female. The females take over construction of the hive. They spend their time tending to the home, caring for the young, shoring up walls and feeding. Unfertilized eggs become males. The males are called scouts, or drones. They spend their entire lives searching for bees' nests to destroy.

Fully formed nests of the Japanese giant hornet are the size of a small child. They can have hundreds of workers. The workers are smaller than the queen, but very aggressive to intruders. Recently, population growth in Japan, and the resulting decimation of the Japanese giant hornet's forest habitat, has caused a population growth in the yellow hornet. The yellow hornet has moved into the cities of Japan, where it drinks from discarded soft drink cans and pilfers trash for leftover food. Over 40 people a year die from its stings.

The Japanese giant hornet has no natural predators, except man. In Japan, they are a delicacy. They are eaten raw or deep-fried, or the amino acids on which they live are harvested and manufactured into a sports energ y drink.

The Japanese honey bee does have a defense against the giant hornet, though it does not always work. Sometimes it fails and the bees are destroyed, their heads ripped off and their children eaten and the remains of their bodies strewn about the hive they once called home.

But if the bees are quick enough, if they act according to the plan created for them over millions of years, here is what they do: when a scout appears, they wait until the last possible second, in the last instant before it spreads its pheromones, before it summons the army that will destroy the hive.

At some unspoken sign, some chemical signal like a flare going off in the night, the bees surround the hornet scout so tightly it cannot get away. …

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