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Wednesday
Oct092013

Tracking Giant Hornets that Have Killed at Least 42 People

Karson Yiu/ABC News(AN KANG, China) -- In a village on the outskirts of An Kang, China, a little girl, just 18-months-old, is dressed head-to-toe in clothing far too hot for the mild fall weather. Her mother removes one of her tiny socks and a still-gaping wound is revealed. An Asian Hornet stung the little girl there one month ago, releasing venom so potent multiple stings can cause kidney failure and death.

It was the only place her flesh was exposed, her mother explained. She gestures over the foot and up the shin, describing how swollen her daughter's leg became. She was lucky to be stung just once, and survived. So now the girl's parents make sure she wears socks. It is their best, and their only, defense.

An Kang is ground zero for the recent outbreak of Asian Hornet, or Giant Asian Hornet as the larger species is known, attacks on humans. Government figures put the death toll at 42 and the number of injured at 1,600. But officials at An Kang tell ABC News the actual number is much higher.

"These hornets have been killing people for some time," said a city official who requested anonymity. "This year, just in this district more than 20 people have been killed. The number should be a lot higher than that. The number is shocking."

The Asian Hornet, or Vespa Mandarinia, can grow to be thumb-sized. It is capable of flying at speeds of up to 25 mph and a distance of 50 miles. Their stingers carry a lethal mix of foreign protein that when mixed in the human bloodstream can cause sepsis. Without proper treatment, such as dialysis, a victim will die.

The insect's existence in An Kang is not new. Nor is this the first time humans have been attacked. For years the Asian Hornet has lived among inhabitants here and elsewhere across East Asia. Parts of Japan in particular have been home to significant populations for years. But they have never attacked like they are attacking now.

Ren Chengan, 28, has lived on the outskirts of An Kang all his life. He remembers seeing hornets quite regularly while playing in the mountainside forest and along the riverbanks as a young boy. When he was around 8, he remembers, he was stung on the back of his head but suffered only minor swelling. Today, his family watches his young niece very carefully. Ren says it is no longer safe for children to play so freely.

During his youth, his family farmed a small piece of land. Eventually, with China's rise, he says government officials instructed his family to stop farming and open a restaurant to cater to tourists. Ren believes the disruption in the co-existence of his family's old way of life and the ecosystem of the forest has contributed to the outbreak in hornet attacks.

"If you didn't bother them," he says, "they would not bother you."

Ren points out a hive across the river. It is high in a tree and on a mountain slope, far enough from the road so that passersby do not come close to it. It is possible to see a small swarm of hornets flying above it, but Ren is nonplussed. He guesses it contains up to a thousand of the killer insects.

There is no concrete explanation for why the hornets are attacking humans with such ferocity this year. Experts point to urban sprawl as one reason the hornet's natural habitat has been compromised. Hives are now commonly found underground or in buildings. Left alone, the hornets typically don't attack humans. But as humans and hornets live in increasing proximity of one another inadvertent disturbance can ignite a vicious response.

In a statement the government said it is doing its best to save people. At the start of September, an average of 30 to 40 people suffered stings daily. By Oct. 5 that number had dropped to 12, according to government figures. The government has been allocated 2 million RMB (just over $300,000) to hospitals to treat the injured. But many hospitals were not equipped to deal with the influx.

Emergency teams led by the fire department are working nest to nest in an attempt to destroy as many as possible. The government reports that more than 4,000 nests have been destroyed. But it is harder and harder to reach the more remote, rural hives. Accompanying one unit on a response call, the team was forced to trek on foot to the site. In full protective gear they used a massive, jerry-rigged torch to set the hive aflame until it was nothing more than a smoldering, charred remain.

"The hornets that survived have no more home," said one member of the team. "They will die."

But there is no guarantee. This year in particular, a mild winter and several months of hot weather may be behind an increased population. The Fang family of honey bee keepers told ABC News they are seeing many more hornets than before, and they are decimating their livelihood.

Asian Hornets attack honey bees every year in a particularly violent fashion, chewing their victims' flesh into a powerful substance that boosts the hornet's strength. It is common for a swarm of hornets to decimate a honeybee hive with ease.

Fang says he has lost 10 bee boxes this year; far more than in previous seasons. He estimates his loss at 30,000 RMB (just under $5,000) and says it will go higher as he loses money on next year's crop.

His neighbor shows off a wound, a crater-like round hole on his arm. When asked why he doesn't go to a safer village, where he might have relatives, he says, "Where can I go? This is my home. I have nowhere to go."

Officials hope the attacks drop by the end of the month and cease completely by December when the hornets retreat for winter. But next spring Queen Hornets will welcome thousands of new offspring.

As the ABC News team leaves town, word comes that a school has contacted the fire department. A hive has been found on school grounds, and they need help immediately.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio