This is What Happens When a Murder Hornet Stings You

Asian giant hornets, the largest wasps in the world, were first confirmed to be in the United States in December, when hornets were sighted and a dead hornet found in the border city of Blaine, Washington, several months after a nest was destroyed across the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island in Canada.

In April, the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Washington State University entomologists urged beekeepers and the wider public to report sightings of the two-inch hornet species, as part of a wider effort to track, study and halt the spread of the invasive species.

"It's a shockingly large hornet," WSU Extension entomologist Todd Murray said in a statement released by the university. "We need to teach people how to recognize and identify this hornet while populations are small, so that we can eradicate it while we still have a chance."

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Asian hornets, a separate and smaller species than the Asian giant hornet recently found in the United States, are a damaging invasive species in France, where they prey on honey bees. JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images

While primarily a danger to bee populations and honey production—one hornet can kill up to 40 bees per minute with its powerful bite, while a swarm of hornets can wipe out a honey bee colony entirely in a few hours—the Asian giant hornet also poses a danger to humans, which has earned it the nickname "murder hornet."

When it comes to the sting of a murder hornet, few people have as much direct experiential data as YouTube personality Nathaniel "Coyote" Peterson, who submits himself to painful insect bites and stings on his channel Brave Wilderness.

In 2018, Peterson allowed himself to be stung by a Japanese giant hornet, which is the largest subspecies of the Asian giant hornet.

Stung under controlled conditions, with an epinephrine injector on hand in case his body responded by going into anaphylactic shock, Peterson used entomologist forceps to press the hornet against his forearm, until it injected him with venom from its quarter-inch long stinger. Though doubled over in pain, Peterson did his best to describe the sensation of getting stung by the so-called murder hornet.

After an initial wave of dizziness, the first sensation, which Peterson gasps out shortly after the Asian giant hornet stung his forearm is "Searing pain. Absolute searing pain."

"My hand is completely seized up and locked in place," Peterson said, about 45 seconds after the initial sting. Twenty minutes later and the swelling had expanded considerably, while Peterson described the subsequent hours as "some of the most painful I have ever faced."

In a follow-up video he described almost 36 hours of pain, which transitioned from searing to itching overnight, even after treating with ice packs and antihistamines.

"It's like a fully-plumped hot dog," Peterson said, about twelve hours after allowing the Japanese giant hornet to sting him, while visiting Japan. "The swelling is all the way down into my elbow and all the way up through my wrist, and I think if you stick me with a fork right now, it would explode."

The venom in the sting of the Asian giant hornet is both neurotoxic and necrotic, meaning it attacks the nervous system and destroys tissue. Peterson likened the bite to other painful insect stings he's endured, including the tarantula hawk (a type of spider wasp), cow killer wasp, giant desert centipede and bullet ant of Central America. Ultimately, Peterson concluded that the "excruciating" sting of the Asian giant hornet was the second-most painful in the world—next to the executioner wasp of Central and South America.

Entomologists have also developed insect sting pain indexes, which can be useful in evaluating the consequences of an Asian giant hornet sting. In the Schmidt sting pain index and others, wasp, bee and ant stings are evaluated on a one through four scale, with Pain Level 4 reserved by its creator, entomologist Justin O. Schmidt, for the bullet ant, tarantula hawk and warrior wasp. Peterson argued that the Asian giant hornet sting was was worthy of a Level 4 rating.

"It feels like someone has shoved a red-hot poker into your arm and does not remove it for close to six hours," he said.

The sting of the Asian giant hornet can be fatal, but primarily to those who are allergic to its venom. However, even non-allergic victims can be killed by the hornets if they are swarmed or receive multiple stings. In Japan, between 12 and 26 people are killed annually by all bees, wasps and hornets, including the Japanese giant.

In 2013, unusually dry and warm weather in China's Shaanxi province created ideal conditions for a different subspecies of the Asian giant hornet, resulting in more than 1,600 stings and 41 deaths.

But more than a danger to humans, the Asian giant hornet represents a major threat to the European honey bees that make up domestic honey production. The hornets, believed to have arrived in the United States on cargo ships, could imperil honey farms in the Pacific Northwest, should the species manage to establish a more permanent foothold on the continent. It's currently unknown whether there are colonies or nests in the U.S., or just isolated individuals.

Ultimately, Peterson doesn't believe the hornets represent a substantial threat to people living in the United States, describing the "murder hornet" appellation as a media creation meant to "evoke fear from the public."

"Murder hornets are not going to invade America," Peterson said, confident that mitigation efforts will ensure the eradication of the invading hornets.