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It's humans, not hornets, who are invading

By Amy Stewart, Special to CNN
October 7, 2013 -- Updated 0406 GMT (1206 HKT)
The Asian giant hornet (scientific name Vespa mandarinia) has a venom that destroys red blood cells and can cause multiple organ failure and fatal allergic reactions. More than 40 people have been killed in China by these hornets since July. The Asian giant hornet (scientific name Vespa mandarinia) has a venom that destroys red blood cells and can cause multiple organ failure and fatal allergic reactions. More than 40 people have been killed in China by these hornets since July.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amy Stewart: Asian hornets have killed, injured many in Asian cities
  • She says they're venturing great distances for food as their habitats are vanishing
  • Human intrusions have long touched off battles in nature, Stewart says
  • Stewart: The hornets are not invasive; in this case, it is the humans who are

Editor's note: Amy Stewart is the author of six books, including "Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects" (Algonquin Books , 2011)

(CNN) -- It reads like something out of a Japanese monster movie: Enormous angry hornets invade cities, dive-bomb unsuspecting civilians, and inflict horrifically painful and in some cases fatal stings.

But it's not science fiction, it's real. Every year around this time, the Asian giant hornets move into cities in China, Japan, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula and other areas in Asia to forage for food for their young, and that's where the trouble starts. More than 40 people have died so far this season from the powerful stings and scores have been hospitalized. Emergency response teams are on the hunt for the nests to destroy them before the insects do more damage, and authorities have set up medical units to treat the injured.

Amy Stewart
Amy Stewart

So what do the hornets have against city dwellers? Nothing, really. The hornets just happen to be in an unusually desperate situationn -- largely due to humans. The revulsion and panic that people feel when they read about these incidents or see pictures on TV and on the Internet should be about something more than fear. It should provide a moment to consider the impact of humans on their environment--one that can end up biting them back.

Asian giant hornets don't eat much solid food as adults; instead, they forage for food for their young, often stealing the larvae of honeybees or other insects, but sometimes they forage for scraps of fish in city garbage cans. Then they fly incredible distances to deliver the food, arriving exhausted and starving.

They get their only nutrition from their children. That's right: The babies feed the parents. These grub-like hornet larvae enjoy the meal their parents have brought them, then the parents tap on their heads, which prompts the larvae to offer up a few drops of clear liquid. The amino acids and other nutrients in this liquid fuels the adult hornets, and they fly off in search of more food.

Hornets kill scores of people in China

Sounds aggravating, doesn't it? I'd be angry, too, if I had to go to that much effort to feed my young. At one time, the hornets could forage through forests and fields to find a meal for the kids. But now, as those wild areas are paved over, the hornets find themselves on our turf. Their search for food is as desperate and fast-paced as it ever was, only now they must contend with parking lots and apartment buildings where they once only had to battle other insect foes.

This is not the first time that we humans have moved into wild areas and found ourselves doing battle with wild creatures as a result. One example: In the 19th century, great swaths of Brazilian wilderness were hacked down to make room for plantations. Once people started living in areas that had been wild, they found themselves exposed to new diseases that had never before posed much of a threat to humans.

The assassin bug, a bloodsucking insect native to the region, helps transmit a disease called Chagas disease. It had never before been widespread among humans; its reach was primarily confined to other jungle-dwelling animals. But once people moved into the insect's habitat, the disease began to spread among us and continues to do so.

The deaths inflicted by the Asian giant hornet threat are indeed tragic. But they also serve as a reminder that nature is fierce and powerful. The hornets are not invasive; in this case, it is the humans who are invasive. There can be consequences to moving in on another creature's territory. The Asian giant hornet is feeling the pressure that species all over the world are experiencing. The only difference is that the hornet has found a way to push back. Can you blame it?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Stewart.

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