Invasion alert: aggressive Oriential hornet’s spread in Malta is growing

Pests of the Maltese islands: 3,766 Oriental Hornet nests recorded in 2020 alone, as exterminator warns of invasion

The Oriental Hornet
The Oriental Hornet

To the relief of entomophobes, as colder days start setting in, the insects we love to hate start crawling back into their underground hiding spots.

But while summer creepy crawlies retreat, Malta is still facing two very antagonizing species of insects – the Oriental Hornet and the Termite.

In the last month or so, people have reported increased sightings of the infamous Vespa orientalis, or the Oriental Hornet (Żunżan Bagħal) in both public and secluded species.

Speaking to MaltaToday, pest exterminator Arnold Sciberras said the Oriental Hornet is now found in the Mediterranean basin, the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates, India and Madagascar. However, due to human introduction, its habitat has spread to South America up to Mexico. It is indigenous to the Maltese islands.

The hornet, reddish brown in colour with a distinctive yellow discoloration on its head and abdomen, starts appearing at around May all through to October.

An oriental hornet nest
An oriental hornet nest

Arnold Sciberras said the Oriental Hornet’s temperament is aggressive while also being a predator. “It can kill large insects like grasshoppers and the highly beneficial honey bee. Some have also been recorded attacking bird and mice nests. The hornet can be sometimes be seen stalking public areas for human food.”

Sciberras said that this year alone he has tended to as much as 3,766 hornet nests, each with populations varying between 30 to around 400 hornets.

The pest exterminator also warned of its very painful sting, with sting victims urged to seek medical attention. An urticarial rash, facial swelling and difficulty in breathing, shortness of breath and wheezing can occur. Victims have also reported low blood pressure and a fast heartbeat.

He also said that unlike the honey bee’s stinger, the hornet’s stinger is not barbed, and therefore can attack multiple times when triggered. When a hornet is threatened, it releases pheromones from its body, mobilizing the rest of the nest to attack. Attacks can also be triggered by perfumes and other volatile chemicals when the hornets mistake the scent for pheromones.

People who spot a hornet invasion should never approach the nest, and are advised to seek professional help.

Another pest which has swept the island is the termite, according to Sciberras. “Locally most people are unaware that we even have termites. In fact, they were of such minor importance they were classified in layman’s terms just as ‘susa’, which in Maltese refers to any insect that in one of its life stages attacks live or dead wood.”

A termite infestation wreaking havoc
A termite infestation wreaking havoc

If left unchecked termites can have devastating effects and turn a property into ruins, according to Sciberras. Up to 10 years ago he recorded around 250 colonies mostly in the north-west of Malta, but in the past seven years, they have spread in so many areas that is impossible to keep track anymore.

Termites are weak and relatively fragile insects that need to stay moist to survive. When exposed they can be easily overpowered and devoured by at least three species of local ants and other predators. They avoid these perils by covering their trails with tubing made of feces, plant matter, saliva and soil. They can therefore remain out of sight for a long period of time.

Termites do not limit themselves to wood and also damage paper, cloth, carpets and other cellulosic materials. Two species are known to exist locally at present: The garden termite (Kalotermes flavicollis) and the damp wood termite (Reticulitermes lucifugus), the latter being the main household pest.

A third species is being studied by the exterminator, who said that they can not only travel through loose ground but can also dig through rock and concrete if need be. This theory was confirmed this year when more aggressive behaviour and household invasion was noted.

“While termites do not pose any physical danger to humans, the damage they can cause can be extensive and irreparable,” Sciberras warned.

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