“If it bleeds, it leads.” That old newspaper publishing saying of course means that sensational stories get read, therefore, sell papers.
This past spring in America and Canada, a sensational insect story was front and center.
The term, Murder Hornet, coined by journalists in the U.S. has a direct connection to Japan and its nature.
The “murder hornet” actually refers to the Giant Japanese Hornet, known in Japan as “osuzumebachi” 殺人スズメバチ which literally translated means, “sparrow bee.” It is native to Japan and is normally found in the mountainous forests throughout the country.
Having been part of Japan’s ecology throughout history, the largest hornet in the world is well-known and studied in Japan. The word “fear” wouldn’t accurately describe how the average Japanese person feels about the insect, but “respect” would be more apt. People in Japan know that they are dangerous, but also know that they are usually not a threat. They are a part of Japan’s ecology that deserves respect, but certainly not panic.
The “Murder Hornet” phenomenon reminds me, as someone who grew up in the 1980’s about the hype around Africanized bees. They were dubbed “Killer Bees” and media made it out that they were marching north from Mexico, through the United States and would eventually find themselves in Canada. We were all doomed!
Although Africanized bees, which are certainly more aggressive than typical European bees found in America, did move into some parts of the United States, the hypes was just that; hype.
My first encounter with a giant hornet was in the summer of 2008. That was my first summer living in Japan. As an outdoor and nature enthusiast, I would spend much of my free time hiking on the trails on Mount Rokko in Kobe, Japan. That summer I found many abandoned nests attached to old houses and shops on the mountian and was “buzzed” many times by giant hornets. I was never attacked or harmed by one, but they clearly let their presence be known to me.
When a giant hornet buzzes you or flies close to your head, it sounds as if a lawnmower is sailing past you! During those times, I wasn’t scared, but CERTAINLY startled and full of respect.
During my years in Japan, I grew to love the wonderful connections between Japanese people, culture, and insects.
I became an insect and bird enthusiast. I fell down the rabbit hole of entomology! I read and studied as much as I could about insects and ecosystems in Japan. I took courses about insects and spent as much time outdoors photographing, capturing, and learning about them. I became especially fascinated with Japanese paper wasps, bees, and other stinging insects.
I learned that if you live in the heart of a big city like Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya, and don’t spend time in the countryside of Japan, you will probably never see a giant hornet. Cities are not good habitats for the hornets because of the lack of food sources for them.
In the mountains of Japan, giant hornets predate on basically any other insect. They’ll take on beetles, mantises, caterpillars, wasps, and bees.
Below is a video I shot outside of my house in Kobe, Japan a few years back. In it, a giant hornet has bested a Japanese paper wasp and is in the process of decapitating it.
In this video, you can see a giant hornet in there Shizuoka area of Japan taking out a large mantis!
Each year in Japan there are stories of people being attacked by giant hornets. Those are often hikers or farmers who accidentally disturb a nest and the hornets defend it.
We also hear stories of people dying as a result of giant hornet stings. They are big hornets who can produce a lot of venom, but the majority of those people who pass away, die as a result of anaphylactic shock, due to an allergic reaction. The same type of reaction someone with a severe food allergy might have if they ingest that food.
At the same time, in Japan each year there are news reports of people who tragically died as a result of bear and snake attacks as well.
Nature can at times be cruel and when we go hiking or foraging in the habitat of wild animals, we must always be respectful and cautious.
Of course, there are people out there who have legitimate concerns about giant hornets. First and foremost, people who work in the bee industry. Beekeepers and honey producers have very legitimate fears about giant hornets because they often predate their honeybees.
If you watch the YouTube channel, “Bees and Bugs, Japan”, you can see a beekeeper from New Zealand who is based on Awaji Island in Japan. He keeps hives of native Japanese honeybees for honey production and in his videos, giant hornets are often a serious issue. You can see some of the various methods he employs to keep them away from his precious bees. Sticky traps and protective nets are among some of his strategies.
At the end of the day, many entomologists in North America have stated that “Murder Hornets” will probably not pose a legitimate threat to people in North America. A few nests have been found in the northwestern United Staes and on Vancouver Island in Canada but were promptly destroyed.
We should all be fearful of invasive species no matter where we live. Whether those species are winged, swim, or are plants, if they are not supposed to be in a habit or ecosystem, bad things can of course happen.
In Japan, giant hornets are part of the wildlife and ecosystems. They have a place as do every other native plant and animal. They are supposed to be in Japan. Japanese people know that hence the lack of “hype” here.
For those of you in Japan, here are a few little nuggets of suzumaebachi knowledge:
If you live in the city, you are most likely not to encounter them. On the outskirts of cities, they will appear with more frequency.
Dark colors such as black and navy blue tend to make the hornets more aggressive so when hiking in the mountains of Japan, avoid wearing dark colors.
When hiking, stick to the trails. Although some hornets might buzz you occasionally, you are less likely to find your self accidentally encountering a nest (which most often are underground).
In the Fall, as the colony begins to fall apart and die, the hornets become far more aggressive and unpredictable in their behavior.
According to experts in Japan, if you are ever attacked by a giant hornet DO NOT stand still! You will simply be stung more. Run away as fast as you can!
Entomologists (insect scientists) also dislike the term Murder Hornets and in some insect podcasts I listen to, they too roll their eyes and sigh when they hear someone say, “Have you heard about Murder Hornets?”
Giant Japanese Hornets are fascinating creatures that demand our respect. If you are in Japan, know that they are from here and have a place. Also, the next time you see one, please DO NOT call it a Murder Hornet…that might make them even angrier!
Kevin O’Shea is a Nature Educator, podcaster, presenter, photographer and fan of all things outdoors. He is based out of Shenzhen, China, but lived in Japan for 10 years. Since February 2020 he has been based in Osaka, Japan where he can be found collecting insects in local parks and studying the local flora and fauna!
Follow him on Twitter: @madformaple
Instagram: @shizhenwildlife @japannightscenes