Vespa tropica

This is a medium-sized to large species. Queens reach 30mm or more, males average 26mm and workers average 24 to 26mm. There is some geographical variance within this species. Generally, the second abdominal segment carries a large area of bright yellow, while the rest of the abdomen is black. In Hong Kong, the head and sides of the thorax are usually reddish. On the other hand, specimens from Southeast Asian regions such as Singapore are fully black, and tend to get distinctly larger.

Above: Vespa tropica in Hong Kong
Below: Vespa tropica in Singapore. First photo copyright and courtesy of E-Trails Singapore.

Vespa tropica is a widely distributed hornet in much of tropical Asia. In Hong Kong, it is not uncommon, but is rather secretive and tends to fly close to the cover of foliage. Individuals in Singapore often fly high in trees.

This species is known to attack the nests of Polistines (paper wasps) in order to obtain the larvae to feed their own larvae. It is said to be almost exclusive in choice of prey. However, I have seen them catch honeybees on numerous occasions in Singapore, and also once saw a worker catch and kill a dragonfly. The only instance of predation (as opposed to territorial fights) within the genus I witnessed also involved Vespa tropica; a large worker captured and killed an individual of Vespa bicolor.

The nest of Vespa tropica is usually underground or in a tree hollow or similar enclosed space. Due to the location, the nest is seldom seen. If excavated, the nest usually appears rhomboid or bowl-shaped, with an open bottom (as opposed to the completely sealed nests of most aerial hornets). The nest envelope is laminar (comprising of distinct, broad individual layers) and very brittle.

A nest of this species, however, was photographed in an aerial location in Singapore, built from a tree! Photo copyright and courtesy of Tan Siong-Kiat (Singapore).

This apparently happens more often than expected. On my trip to Singapore in March 2006 (see the "Trip Reports" section), I found an extremely large nest of this species (nearly five feet in height and width!) in a tree! It was seven feet above ground, but had in fact fallen from an even higher position; its original location appeared to be at least 14 feet high.

In Hong Kong, this species has a short life cycle. The queens emerge only in late May, and colonies die off by November.

Vespa tropica does not seem to be a defensive species. A long time ago, when I was around 10, I found a hole in the ground, in which these wasps were emerging and flying away, while others returned. I was extremely curious and mischievous as a child, and despite my parents' stern warnings, I placed a plastic bag over the nest, hoping they would fly out and be trapped. To this day, I thank God that my life was so preserved! They could have killed me, but yet, all that happened was that activity at the nest halted. When I eventually moved off, the hornets started to emerge again. It is strange how reluctant these insects were to attack. Still, many years later, I was attacked when I accidentally kicked a log concealing a nest. And it must be noted that this species has been responsible for many fatal attacks, due to the location of its nests and its wide distribution. It is also known to have rather strong venom - in fact, the most painful single sting I have ever experienced was inflicted by a very large individual of this species in Singapore.

It must be noted that this species, like Vespa affinis, appears more aggressive in tropical regions than sub-tropical areas; personal experience has shown colonies in Singapore to be quite quick to attack compared to those in Hong Kong.

In most parts of its range, Vespa tropica can easily be distinguished from Vespa affinis by its larger size and the distribution of the yellow band on the abdomen; the yellow band covers the first and second segments in Vespa affinis, but only the second in Vespa tropica.

Watch video clips of Vespa tropica