Invasion of the giant hornets… or is it?

There’s a buzz going about… and it’s created by a load of hornets. Regular readers will know about the Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia, which has been causing a bit of debate. Quite a few people emailed The Ranger or posted to the blog, worried (or interested) that they might have found a specimen of V. mandarinia in their house or garden. One of these was Ranger reader Dave Wall, who said:

I have just seen a massive hornet in my garden. It was hovering just above an ants nest. It only stayed around for a few seconds before flying off. I have seen ordinary hornets fairly commonly in and around our house, but nothing like this. It was not the European Hornet ! I would estimate it to be about 60mm in length. It’s bright yellow head and huge abdomen were the most striking features. We are in a very rural fruit growing area in Warwickshire.

The Ranger rather optimistically requested photos, and splendidly, Dave was able to comply. A few days later he gamely captured one of the beasts and took some great photographs – here’s one:

European hornet (c) Dave Wall

Dave Wall’s hornet – the ruler has been added in from another part of the photo, but the scale is correct.

We can see from Dave’s ruler that the body length of this creature is a somewhat less scary 35mm, which is well within the range of the European hornet V. crabro. Indeed, this is no Asian monster but our native European hornet, and as such is little to worry about. If you need convincing perhaps the simplest way to tell them apart is the colour of the thorax (the bit of the body between the head and the abdomen) which is very clearly brown in UK hornets (less so in other European races), but definitely black in the Asian one. This one, as you see, is quite gingery-brown. This is a worker although it’s on the big side. Queens and workers have seven segments to the abdomen, whereas males have only six. The queen can be up to 50mm in length, so quite possibly that’s what Dave saw the first time. The European hornet is actually less aggressive than the common wasp, and although it looks fearsome, is less likely to sting. And although it will nest in urban and suburban situations, it prefers the countryside. So you don’t need to be too worried, if you leave them alone they will probably not bother you and go away. Interestingly, it’s not just The Ranger who has had these enquiries. The Ranger’s correspondent Stuart Hine, who is manager of the Natural History Museum’s Insect Identification Service, explains more:

The Insect Identification Service at the Natural History Museum is receiving unprecedented enquires from the public about the insect. Most people are concerned that they are seeing the giant Oriental hornet or the Asian ‘killer’ hornet, probably due to recent media attention these species have received. But this is not the case. What people are seeing are queens of our native European hornet, Vespa crabro, our largest species of social wasp. Queen hornets are formidable looking insects with a body length of up to five centimetres. In the UK emerging queens are not usually seen until about early-mid May. However, the unseasonable mild spring we have experienced this year appears to have roused them from their slumber earlier with the first sightings in early March.

You can also see a great video of Stuart talking about this, with some (dead) examples of both the European and Asian hornets. Read this post if you think you have got an Asian Hornet.

Check out this massive wasp

We heard you wanted to see a picture of a simply gigantic wasp. So here it is.

The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia
The Asian Giant Hornet, Vespa mandarinia

 

Q. Have I got one of these?

A. Lots of people have emailed and commented (see below) worrying that they have a specimen of V. mandarinia in their garden or house. Unless you live in temperate or tropical Eastern Asia the answer is “definitely not!”. Continue reading Check out this massive wasp

Giant cave spiders found down malodorous hole

A photo story for your entertainment. On a training day this week, The Ranger and his colleagues discovered a small hole in the ground near a little-used public footpath; on investigation the hole led to an intriguing tunnel.

A hole in the ground

A hole in the ground… but what’s inside?

Imagining himself too sensible or, perhaps more honestly, acknowledging himself a little more portly than his companions, The Ranger declined to go down – but when they returned with tales of massive spiders, his interest was kindled. On examining the photos they brought back he was delighted to identify Meta menardi, the cave spider, a fairly common but hardly-ever recorded spider which lives almost exclusively in complete darkness, and so is rarely seen and often thought of as very rare. So, the next day, armed with camera and slightly more appropriate gear, he arrived on site and prepared to enter the grotto.

Preparing to descend

Preparing to descend

The first thing that he noticed was a tiny rocky tunnel with water in it, and a nice plastic bag floating there, too. The second thing was the smell – that place stank.

A plastic bag in a hole

The Ranger was glad he’d shed all his jumpers and fleeces, and was wearing his slippery Barbour oilcloth coat, as he then had crouch, walking bent-kneed in Groucho Marx-style, to squeeze down the tiny, slimy tunnel, splashing through the stagnant water. You’ll probably have spotted that he also swapped his normal hat for a more expendable one! Manipulating both the torch and the camera was a challenge, but whilst doing that he spotted a tell-tale sign of Meta menardi – the characteristic egg sac suspended from the ceiling, on a stalk about 20mm long:

Meta menardi egg sac

Stunning! After dropping one torch into the filth and having to retrieve it with his bare hands, The Ranger finally came face to face with his quarry – the slow-moving gentle giant of the UK spider world; with a body about 15mm long, and a awesome leg span of about 60mm (more than two inches).

Meta menardi (c) Karl Dyson

Meta menardi (c) Karl Dyson

On further inspection, there were probably a dozen mature specimens, and probably some immature ones. The Ranger gazed at these cave-dwellers in wonder. What a treat!

Emerging

Eventually, the stench and crouching became too much, and the spell was broken. The Ranger had to reverse clumsily away from his new spider friends and re-enter the real world. He was delighted with the success of his mission. But there was one task remaining!

That smells!

That smells!

The spiders probably don’t get many visitors, but some passer-by had let a plastic bag fall into their cave, and The Ranger brought it out as mitigation for having disturbed the silent darkness. He emptied the filthy water from the bag, and found it to be one of the rankest-smelling objects he’d ever encountered. It didn’t help that he was covered in the slime himself, either. Far from the nearest bin, he had to carry the reeking bag at arm’s length back to the car park, shunned by his companions. At last he was able to pay his debt to the spiders, and put the bag in a bin; then the party could retire to the pub to sip restorative shandy and boast about the size of ‘the ones that got away’…