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Hornetgeddon! Authorities swat deadly swarm of giant bugs

At least 1,600 people in China have been injured and 42 killed by giant Asian hornets alongside a smaller but equally lethal species. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

ANKANG, SHAANXI PROVINCE, China – A winged menace has killed 42 people and injured at least 1,600 since July, striking fear across this heavily industrialized area of central China.

Now local officials in Shaanxi province are declaring an uneasy stalemate with the virulent population of Asian hornets who have forced many locals to take extreme measures to avoid getting stung. 

Authorities now believe that the worst has passed after hundreds of extermination teams – consisting of firefighters, police and local villagers – were dispatched across the southern part of the province to seek out and destroy the massive hornet nests.

The attacks have been blamed on a particularly aggressive species of hornet known as the Asian giant hornet or Vespa mandarinia. The Asian giant hornet is the largest in the world and has a reputation as a relentless hunter that stalks its prey — normally honeybees — in coordinated attacks.

The neurotoxin in the hornet stingers can cause organ failure, anaphylactic shock, renal failure and – in some cases – the ability to dissolve human tissue.

Dr. Lianxi Xing, College of Life Sciences, Northwest University

The Asian giant hornet is seen here in its natural habitat.

The unseasonably warm and dry weather in the region this fall — traditionally the normal breeding season for hornets — and continued human encroachment into hornet breeding grounds have been suggested as possible reasons for the recent rash of attacks.

Provincial officials estimate that the extermination teams have destroyed more than 4,500 nests across the region, first by locating them during the day and coming back at night to burn them with the hornets still inside. A nest typically holds over 1,000 giant hornets, officials said. 

Since the efforts to get rid of the nests, local health officials report that attacks have dropped from highs of 80 per day to just a handful in recent days. No one is reported to have died from a hornet attack in six days.

Exhausted extermination crews are standing down now, officials say, responding only to specific calls for assistance when citizens spot hornet nests. But during a visit to a village nearby, firefighters could still be seen working to eliminate nests in populated areas.

David Lom / NBC News

A woman waits inside a local clinic in Shaanxi Province, next to a poster warning residents about the danger posed by giant hornets.

Dr. Tan Jiangli, an etomologist from China's Northwestern University, was working in Hong Xia village in the southern hills on a recent day to collect live samples from a hive that had been removed from a rice field. A second, slightly smaller but equally dangerous species, known as the Vespa Velutina, have been particularly vexing for local farmers and field workers because the hornets burrow under the dirt. One errant step and an angry swarm is awakened.

But with cooler weather forecast here, officials say relief will become sustained. And while hornets are not known to attack unless disturbed, some villagers here say that is little relief.

Cheng Xiamei was picking chestnuts when she was stung repeatedly on her face after accidentally kicking a hornet's nest. Now, Cheng said, she rarely leaves home, terrified of coming in contact with another swarm.

“Everybody is so scared,” she said. “I have never seen so many flying around.”