In a village on the outskirts if An Kang, China, a little girl, just 18-months-old, is dressed head-to-toe in clothing far too hot for the mild fall weather. Her mother removes one of her tiny socks and a still-gaping wound is revealed. An Asian Hornet stung the little girl there one month ago, releasing venom so potent multiple stings can cause kidney failure and death.
It was the only place her flesh was exposed, her mother explained. She gestures over the foot and up the shin, describing how swollen her daughter's leg became. She was lucky to be stung just once, and survived. So now the girl's parents make sure she wears socks. It is their best, and their only, defense.
An Kang is ground zero for the horrifying recent outbreak of Asian Hornet, or Giant Asian Hornet as the larger species is known, attacks on humans. Government figures put the death toll at 42 and the number of injured at 1,600. But officials at An Kang tell ABC News the actual number is much higher.
"These hornets have been killing people for some time," said a city official who requested anonymity, "This year, just in this district more than 20 people have been killed. The number should be a lot higher than that. The number is shocking."
The Asian Hornet, or Vespa Mandarinia, can grow to be thumb-sized. It is capable of flying at speeds of up to 25 mph and a distance of 50 miles. Their stingers carry a lethal mix of foreign protein that when mixed in the human bloodstream can cause sepsis. Without proper treatment, such as dialysis, a victim will die.
The insect's existence in An Kang is not new. Nor is this the first time humans have been attacked. For years the Asian Hornet has lived among inhabitants here and elsewhere across East Asia. Parts of Japan in particular have been home to significant populations for years. But they have never attacked like they are attacking now.
Ren Chengan, 28, has lived on the outskirts of An Kang all his life. He remembers seeing hornets quite regularly while playing in the mountainside forest and along the riverbanks as a young boy. When he was around 8, he remembers, he was stung on the back of his head but suffered only minor swelling. Today, his family watches his young niece very carefully. Ren says it is no longer safe for children to play so freely.
During his youth, his family farmed a small piece of land. Eventually, with China's rise, he says government officials instructed his family to stop farming and open a restaurant to cater to tourists. Ren believes the disruption in the co-existence of his family's old way of life and the ecosystem of the forest has contributed to the outbreak in hornet attacks.
"If you didn't bother them," he says, "they would not bother you."
Ren points out a hive across the river. It is high in a tree and on a mountain slope, far enough from the road so that passersby do not come close to it. It is possible to see a small swarm of hornets flying above it, but Ren is nonplussed. He guesses it contains up to a thousand of the killer insects.
There is no concrete explanation for why the hornets are attacking humans with such ferocity this year. Experts point to urban sprawl as one reason the hornet's natural habitat has been compromised. Hives are now commonly found underground or in buildings. Left alone, the hornets typically don't attack humans. But as humans and hornets live in increasing proximity of one another inadvertent disturbance can ignite a vicious response.