Fun facts about the European hornet

Had several visits from European hornets this summer. Since knowing stuff about scary things tend to make them less so, here are a few fun facts about Vespa crabro:

  • Largest wasp in Europe (length varies from 18mm to 35mm). Not as aggressive as our regular wasps (Norwegian wasps, German wasps, and yellowjackets), but the sting is said to be more painful. Cruising speed of 20–24 km/h (≈ 12–15 mph), faster when it’s hunting.
  • Was observed in Norway in 2007 for the first time since 1911, huzzah!
  • Europeans are the biggest threat to the European hornets, destroying their nests because they’re scary and chopping down their habitats for fun and profit. The hornets have enjoyed legal protection in Germany since 1987, where swatting (and killing) a European hornet can net you a fine of up to €50,000.
  • Laughs at spiders and their webs, even steals their prey (phenomenon known as kleptoparasitism).
  • The common hedgehog is immune to the poison and will gladly raid a hornet nest, though they’re usually built in places hedgehogs can’t reach.
  • Insect-eating birds leave the European hornets alone, except the European bee-eaters (Merops apiaster) who remove stingers and squeeze out the venom before they eat. Clever birds!
  • We don’t have bee-eaters in Norway.

Ant etymology rabbit hole

Was admiring the word myrmecology (the study of ants), and got curious about its similarity to the Swedish word for ant, myra, and the Norwegian variant maur.

Started wondering about the word ant, since it’s so different. As far as I can tell, it’s an orally eroded version of the synonym emmet from the Old English ǣmete, related to the German Ameise. Myrmecology, like most “studies of”, comes from Greek, in this case múrmēx (ant).

Looked up the etymology for maur as well: the Scandinavian names come from the Old Norse maurr, so it looks like the relation to myrmecology is either coincidental or goes back to Indo-European.

Trying to make sense of an online Indo-European dictionary, the closest I got was:

Root / lemma: mai-1

English meaning: to cut down, work with a sharp instrument


2. d-extension: got. maitan `hew, hit, cut, clip', [...] ahd. mīza `Milbe' (probably to gr. μίδας `Made'), perhaps also ags. ǣ-mette, engl. ant, emmet, ahd. ā-meiza `Ameise'

So... looks to me like there’s some kind of link between King Midas (μίδας) and the word ‘ant’, but damned if I can find the link to “myrmecology”.

As a consolation prize, I’ll settle for finding out there’s a Midas ant (Myrmecia midas) living in Australia.


Superorganism mind

I think the assumption of a high degree of common interest is important to this idea of a superorganism, the expectation that it acts as a unitary, cognitive entity. In other societies where the integration is not as tight, it might be less fruitful to treat them as a single mind.


Obviously, there are a lot of differences between insect societies and human societies. If we find commonalities in how they behave, maybe that’s revealing.

Myrmecologist quote

The Finnish myrmecologist Rainer Rosengren showed that when the ants emerge in the spring, an older ant goes out with a young one along the older ant’s habitual trail. The older ant dies and the younger ant adopts that trail as its own, thus leading the colony to remember, or reproduce, the previous year’s trails.