Life

On the wings of giants

David Hawke, Special to the Packet & Times

DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES
The giant hornet is well named, and is now living among us. While it prefers forested habitat, these large insects may occasionally show up around a cottage. Generally peaceful, unless you threaten their nest, they hunt other insects that are harmful to forest leaves.

DAVID HAWKE/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES The giant hornet is well named, and is now living among us. While it prefers forested habitat, these large insects may occasionally show up around a cottage. Generally peaceful, unless you threaten their nest, they hunt other insects that are harmful to forest leaves.

If someone's about to do something very foolish, we might say "he's about to kick the hornet's nest," the implied meaning that he will be attacked, hurt and sent running (metaphorically speaking) for poking at something that would have been better left alone. This saying is apropos in Europe, but not so much here in North America.

The difference between these two sides of "the pond" is that in Europe, they have hornets; here, we have mainly wasps. As both hurt like the dickens when you get stung by one, you may question, "So what?" But naturalists and other trendy nerds like to know exactly what it was that stung them, and why.

But this story is not about someone getting stung. No, the creature was handed over in a plastic bag, quite dead (that we could ascertain quickly as the head was no longer attached to the thorax). Good wife Julie was on a field trip to Georgian Bay Islands National Park, with the Orillia Naturalists' Club, and the park naturalist turned out to be an old acquaintance; it was he who had the beast in the bag. Knowing Julie had a good background in identifying bugs of all sorts, he asked if she might come up with a name for the recently departed.

The real reason this specimen was "collected" was because it is big. In fact, you might even say it was enormous when compared to other winged stingy critters. Most curious indeed!

It took two insect guides and a few websites to confirm what she deduced it to be: a European hornet. According to the literature, this is the only true hornet that is in North America. All the other nasty stinging things around here are bees, wasps and yellowjackets.

Identifying any insect closer than family or genus is a challenge, but as only one of these is in the neighbourhood, we decided it was Vespa crabro germana, first identified in 1791 (in Europe). And now it's here.

There is a lovely saying that has been passed on through generations of Europeans, a few words that have resulted in some hornet species now being endangered with extinction: "Seven hornet stings kill a horse, three an adult and two a child." Growing up with advice like that (mythical as it is) has ensured the destruction of every discovered hornet nest over the past several hundred years.

So, let's get serious about this hornet-versus-wasp attitude. Indeed, let's even address the bee-versus-hornet-versus-wasp debate. What all of these creatures share is something called aposematic colouring: the bright black-and-yellow markings of their body that means "danger, no trespassing." After that, things start to separate out.

Bees are fuzzy; hornets and wasps are not. Bees have a barbed stinger while wasps and hornets have a smooth-edged injector. Now this is interesting: When bees sting, they give up their life, as the barbed stinger stays in the victim and the attached venom sac is ripped from the bee's body as it flies away. The bee dies, but you smacked that sting (and venom sac) so vehemently, all the venom was pushed into the wound. And it hurts. It really, really hurts.

Wasps and hornets, however, do not have barbs and they are designed to sting many, continuous times. Jab, jab, jab. Take that, you interfering varlet! While bees eat pollen, wasps and their kin kill other insects for food. Thus their stingers are like hunting knives, to be used over and over, with a little bit of venom released at a time, just enough to subdue a fly.

So, if just a little venom is shot into us, why does a wasp sting hurt so bloody much? Bee venom is much more toxic to us, but wasp venom has acetylcholine, a substance that stimulates nerve endings, thus causing more punch per sting. So, it all balances out, I guess, between your preference to being stung by a bee or a wasp.

The four-part advice to avoid agitating a normally peaceful wasp is as follows: 1. avoid rapid movements (like swatting); 2. don't block its flight path; 3. do not vibrate their nest (by throwing things at it to dislodge it); and, 4. do not ever breathe on the nest. I'm not sure how that last one got on the list, but it makes sense when you think about it.

The hornet that started this whole discourse, the European or giant hornet, came as a species from Europe to North America in 1840. After taking New York, it has spread throughout the New England states and is now fairly well established into southern Ontario.

Don't swat. Don't interfere. Don't run. And above all else, never, ever kick their nest. You've been warned. Don't do something foolish.

David Hawke is a columnist for the Packet & Times. He can be contacted at david.hawke55@gmail.com.



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