As summer nears, Japan’s most dangerous animal will start appearing in many places. We are not talking about bears, who roam Hokkaido and the northern part of Honshu. We are also not talking about the dangerous box jellyfish that shows up around Okinawa when waters start to warm. Oh, no. The beast we are talking about is completely different, and it’s the animal responsible for the largest number of casualties in the country: the Japanese giant hornet.
As the name suggests, the Japanese giant hornet is endemic to Japan. If you hate yellowjackets, you are in for a treat! The Japanese giant hornet is massive, far bigger than other wasps and hornets. In Japan it is known as Oosuzumebachi (オオスズメバチ) which literally translates to “great sparrow bee”. If the name itself serves as a clue, the Japanese giant hornet can be the size of a human thumb. Intimidating. Just intimidating.
Asian giant hornets were spotted recently in Washington State, worrying scientists about the possibility of them becoming an invasive species since these insects are notorious for decimating honeybee colonies. Japanese honeybees have evolved next to Japanese giant hornets, and thus know how to kill them (essentially cooking them alive):
European honeybees are different story, though. When 30 Japanese giant hornets attack European honeybees, they will kill all 10,000 of them in an hour.
Japanese giant hornets are massive insects, measuring more than 4 centimeters; and their stingers 6.25 millimeters. That stinger should be enough to cause a lot of pain, but to make things worse, their venom is extremely potent. This venom attacks one’s nervous system, causing extreme damage to one’s tissue. To put things into perspective, an entomologists from Tamagawa University named Masato Ono once described the sensation of getting stung by a Japanese giant hornet as if a hot nail were penetrating his leg.
One of the biggest problems is that Japanese giant hornets are also incredibly aggressive. If provoked, they will chase you down and attack you. If getting stung by one of these monsters is enough to cause excruciating pain, being attacked by many can become a critical emergency. Many people who are stung need hospital attention, and these insects are estimated to kill between 30 to 40 people each year in the Japanese archipelago, with some estimates going as high as 50, making them the most dangerous animal on the islands (and yes, insects are invertebrate animals: they are arthropods in the kingdom Animalia). However, data compiled by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Health lists recent deaths by hornets and similar insects at less than 20.
The reason most people die has to do with anaphylactic shock due to an allergic reaction; and people who have been stung in the past are at higher risk of developing an allergy the second time they are attacked.
Japanese giant hornets like to nest under trees, eaves, and roofs. Additionally, they can nest by a tree’s roots. They prefer rural areas, so those who are planning on going hiking to Japan’s many beautiful gardens need to be careful. One is more likely to encounter a Japanese giant hornet during warmer seasons, and they tend to be particularly aggressive during their breeding seasons, which takes place between September and October.
As tourists or residents, it’s important to know what to do if you come close to a Japanese giant hornet.
First of all, don’t panic!
I know, I know, having such a terrifying beast in front of you might not be a particularly nice situation, but moving will provoke the hornet. Hornets can outrun you, reaching speeds of 25 miles per hour when pursing prey; and if you start moving fast and running they will chase you down in mass. Their wings are very noisy, and the helicopter-like noise will haunt your dreams for the rest of your life. Since we are talking about provoking them, don’t try to scare them away by moving your hand, it will just infuriate them. The best thing you can actually do is stay motionless until they fly away. A Japanese giant hornet might approach you as a display of curiosity, but once it has lost interest in you will simply leave.
You know how they say that wearing green colors when swimming can make you look like a sea turtle (which tiger sharks will eat with no hesitation)? Well, it is said that clothing is also important when thinking of Japanese giant hornets. Of course, this advice is part of local knowledge, so it’s important to listen to what those who deal with these insects recommend. What they say is that wearing black clothes will trigger Japanese giant hornets, and thus is advisable to wear white or bright clothes when going hiking or to rural areas.
If you do end up getting stung, remember to never scratch the affected area since doing so could exacerbate the injury.
If you have cool water or a cold patch, you should use to prevent swelling; and keep an eye on any signs of an allergic reaction. Always carry antihistamines or an anti-itch cream, and use them as necessary. Just to be safe, it’s always a good idea to go see a doctor or call 119 in case of it being an emergency.
You shouldn’t be afraid of the chances of coming face to face with one of these horrifying creatures, but if you are planning to go hiking or visiting rural areas, it’s important to know what to do.