European Giant Hornet

(This column was first published in the November 13, 2000 Buffalo News.)


    The call came from John Buchnik of Grand Island. "I've got some giant bees in my backyard. Can you tell me what they are?"

    Of course the simple answer was "No." I receive inquiries like this all the time and only rarely -- and then usually when the questions relate to birds -- am I able to provide adequate answers. I most often refer my inquisitor to the appropriate museum curator or the Cooperative Extension in East Aurora.

    But this time I was intrigued and accepted my caller's invitation to come out to see the insects.

    A few days later when I arrived at his home, Mr. Buchnik led me to his backyard and an apple tree under which a bushel basket stood half full of fruit. Buzzing around this basket was the biggest bee-like insect I had ever seen. It was at least an inch long, several times as large as the familiar bumblebee. Its abdomen was a bright yellow-orange, most of the rest of the body reddish-brown.

    Although its size and its relation to notorious stinging insects made this a formidable presence, it paid us no attention whatsoever. Instead it was clearly attracted to sap that oozed from cuts in the overripe apples.

    Before I arrived Mr. Buchnik had captured one of these superbees in an empty margarine dish. I took it to Marc Potzler, assistant entomology curator at the Buffalo Museum of Science, who immediately identified it as a European giant hornet. I then learned more about the species from an excellent German website maintained (in English) by Konrad Schmidt and Dieter Kosmeier:

    These monsters were first recorded in North America in about 1840 and have since spread throughout the eastern United States. Usually woodland dwellers, they are nowhere common but their continued existence here is not threatened.

    Giant hornets should be considered welcome neighbors. Although they occasionally sip juice from overripe fruit in late fall, their diet is 90 percent flies. They do take a few honeybees as well but their effect on bee colonies is considered negligible especially as measured against their reduction of local populations of annoying flies and mosquitoes.

    Like the bald-faced hornets that build those football-sized paper nests visible in trees now that the leaves are gone, the giant hornet is also a social insect. Unlike them, however, it constructs its nests in holes -- usually in hollow trees but sometimes in barns or even in the attics of homes.

    One thing about the nests of both of our hornets that many people do not understand is that they are empty in winter. All their former occupants except a few young queens are dead and the nests will not be reused. The queens, inseminated in autumn, overwinter dormant in rotten wood or underground and start a new nest in spring. The giant hornets use live lilac bark in the construction of their nests, beginning very small and enlarging them through the summer. By fall each hive may provide home base for as many as a thousand hornets.

    Generally social insects are the insects that sting, apparently having evolved this defense mechanism to protect their colony. So the giant hornet stings as well and it has a proportionally larger stinger than its bee and wasp relatives. On the other hand, to balance the larger quantity of poison delivered, tests have shown that theirs is much weaker than that of bees. And Kosmeier and Schmidt describe them as "amazingly peaceful animals, even shier than honeybees."

    Unless you disturb their nest or swat at them, you are quite safe around these gentle giants.-- Gerry Rising