A small but highly efficient killing machineΓÇöa hornet two inches long and with a wingspan up to three inchesΓÇölurks in the mountains of Japan. The voracious predator has a quarter-inch stinger that pumps out a dose of venom with an enzyme so strong it can dissolve human tissue.
Bees, other hornet species, and larger insects such as praying mantises are no match for the giant hornets, which often stalk their prey in relentless armies. Just one of these hornets can kill 40 European honeybees a minute; a handful of the creatures can slaughter 30,000 European honeybees within hours, leaving a trail of severed insect heads and limbs.
People are not the Japanese giant hornet's usual prey, but those who have felt its sting describe the pain as excruciating. Masato Ono, an entomologist at Tamagawa University, near Tokyo, said it's "like a hot nail through my leg."
Someone who is stung by the hornet and doesn't receive proper treatment soon thereafter can die from the venom, which is powerful enough to disintegrate human flesh. About 40 people die each year after being stung by giant hornets, mainly as a result of an allergic reaction to the venom.
European honeybees are a favorite target of the giant hornets. Commonly used by Japanese farmers, the honeybees are not native to Japan and have no natural defenses against an onslaught of giant hornets.
Once an enterprising hornet scouts out a bee colony, it marks the nest with a type of bodily chemical substance called a pheromone. Soon, a horde of giant hornetsΓÇöeach hornet five times larger than a European honeybeeΓÇöarrives to decimate the colony.
The annual cycle of life and death begins anew each spring on the Japanese island of Honshu. As the cold weather fades, giant hornet queens awake from six months of hibernation. Inside, they carry the eggs of those who will be the hive's workers and soldiers.
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