[Update August 22 at 14:50 - Loire's Service départemental d'incendie et de secours has now confirmed to us that the hornets were European and not Asian.]
Two cyclists are in a critical condition in hospital in France after being stung around 50 times each by hornets during an attack while out on a ride. They were taken to intensive care by emergency services.
A third man was stung around 15 times and was also taken to hospital.
The attack happened at around 10:00 yesterday (Sunday August 21) when 10 men were out on a mountain bike ride in a wood near Bois de Joux, Briennon (Loire).
The two men, aged 51 and 72, who were stung almost 50 times each, are thought to have touched the site of a nest somehow. One of the two was released from intensive care today.
A dozen firefighters and three ambulances were sent to the scene. They claimed to have never seen such a brutal attack.
One theory is that the wind may have dislodged their nest and they felt under threat. It is thought the hornets were European rather than Asian hornets, which tend generally to be the more aggressive of the two. European hornets are normally around an inch in length, with queens growing to about 1.4 inches.
Such an incident is very rare, said local expert Bertrand Dufour, the manager of a Loire company that has 10 years of specialist experience in destroying hornet and wasp nests.
He told France Bleu: “These insects only react when they feel in danger. They feel in danger if you try to go after them yourself, or if you are near the nest.
“For example, if you put your foot next to a nest without seeing it, it makes vibrations and then they come out to sting you. Or maybe a nest fell due to wind in the forest, and these cyclists were nearby and had bad luck."
Pierrick Marant, a beekeeper in the region, told regional newspaper Le Progrès: “Hornets, like bees, do not usually attack humans. They will do so to defend their nest and when they feel threatened.
“A smell can also disturb them. An attack generally occurs when a person or any other intruder approaches within a radius of two to three metres of the nest.”
He suggested that the recent drought and hot weather may have increased the insects’ aggression.
Hornet attacks are rare but do happen, and can be fatal in the event of a severe allergy. Asian hornets, which have become increasingly common in France, are especially dangerous.
In 2012, a 54-year-old married father-of-three died after being stung by three Asian hornets, after he accidentally disturbed a nest while trimming a hedge in his garden. He died of an allergic reaction and shock before emergency services could reach him.
In 2020, a 70-year-old farmer died after accidentally disturbing a hornets’ nest while working in a field on his tractor. He also suffered anaphylactic shock.
Some Asian hornet nests may be low or on the ground. His death prompted emergency services to warn the public to be alert to the possibility that nests may be quite low and close to paths.