Well, at least they are not Tiger Hornets…

In Insects, Uncategorized on December 19, 2010 at 4:55 am

Elegant paper pyramid, but don't get too close.

Over the past few months I’ve been cautiously watching the growth of a paper hornets’ nest on one of our pomelo trees. It’s now a good metre high. It’s really very elegantly made, and tough, too – it’s apparently unaffected by the heavy rain we’ve had in the past few weeks.

There are plenty of people who will take one look at the nest and tell you this is the home of the feared Asian Giant Hornet, the Dtor Seua in Thai, (Vespa mandarinia in Linnaean). This is the one, they’ll tell you, that will give you an amazingly painful sting – four or five stings, and you’re dead.

Greater Banded Hornet. Pic courtesy of the School of Ecology and Conservation, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore.

But I believe this nest is actually that of the Greater Banded Hornet (Vespa tropica). Now, understand, I’ve not been getting too close. Hornets, I read, are generally not very aggressive, except around their nests. But the fuzzy photos I’ve managed to capture of the hornets themselves show a brown insect with what looks like a single band of yellow around the abdomen, very like the pic on the left.

A close relative, the Oriental Hornet, has two bands very close together, which perform a unique function: they allow this particular species of hornet to absorb sunlight and turn it into energy. This is a very recent discovery, as reported on December 6 by the BBC. One wonders whether the single band of yellow on the Greater Banded performs the same function.

They may not be Asian Giants, but they’re still pretty hefty. They are about an inch or more in length and sting-wise they pack quiet a wallop, especially when hundreds of them attack.

Any threat to the nest prompts a red alert transmitted by pheromone (basically, smell). “All units! Red alert! Intruder at 4 o’clock, 30 degrees down, approaching rapidly. Scramble now! Ready? Attaaaaack!”

When I was at school in England, more years ago than I care to count, a friend decided it might be fun to chuck some bricks at a wasp nest.

At first nothing much happened; the wasps, in increasing numbers, just circled the entrance of the nest. Then suddenly, like a blurred yellow and black flamethrower, they erupted from the nest and were all over him.

Close-up of the surface of our nest, with its beautiful paper whorls.

He ran screaming all the way back to the school building and had to be carted off to hospital for shots of epinephrine, just in case he was allergic and went into shock.

A few of the wasps, presumably those who weren’t too good at pheromone directions, stung me as well. So my friend wasn’t my friend after that.

And those were just little European wasps.

Hornet stings hurt massively because of the inclusion in the venom cocktail of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter. In other words, it spreads and intensifies the pain. Not pleasant.

Some advice if you find a similar nest in your neighbourhood: Don’t kill a hornet near the nest. It’ll emit the red alert pheromone. And don’t wear perfume or take other volatile substances (gasoline, for example) close to the nest as the smell of these, wafted on the breeze, may be mistaken for a red alert.

All of which explains why the grass in a 50-metre radius around our nest is going to stay uncut for now. And I don’t think we’ll be harvesting the pomelos from the tree, either.

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  1. Thanks for that, Alasdair. I’ve just read a bit more on the hornet’s metabolizing of sunlight, and find myself amazed.

    • Colin, I thought that was pretty cool: Don’t bother to eat any more. Just lie around on the beach and get filled up with energy for the night’s discoing. Mind you, we’d look a little odd with a wide yellow stripe around our bellies.

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