An Insect Expert Offers His Take On 'The Green Hornet'

Seth Rogen in The Green HornetFans of Seth Rogen, Michel Gondry and comic books, rejoice! "The Green Hornet" hits theaters today, following privileged playboy Britt Reid's (Rogen) emerald-suit-clad alter-ego in his attempt to find his place in the world following his publishing mogul father's untimely death.

Reid's solution: teaming with his late father's kung-fu-fighting mechanic Kato (Jay Chou) to provide Los Angeles with the vigilante justice its crime-ridden streets so desperately need. Hilarious friction between the polar opposite partners, a refreshingly Gondry-esque take on action sequences and menacing opposition in the form of villain Chudnofsky (played by "Inglourious Basterds" baddie Christoph Waltz) ensues.

The Green Hornet's name was coined in homage to Reid's father, who died of anaphylactic shock after being stung by a bee. Because "The Green Bee" sounded silly, "hornet" was offered as a substitute. This got us thinking: What the heck is a hornet, anyway? As it turns out, Chudnofsky would've done well to give Jim Carpenter, curator of invertebrate zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, a call. The man knows a thing or two about defeating a hornet, among other useful facts pertaining to the insect. (Um, we hate to break it to you, Rogen, but you didn't have to lose all that weight to play the part after all.) Hit the jump to find out what the movie got right and wrong with regard to hornets.

MTV: Is "hornet" an interchangeable name for "bee," or are they two different types of insects?

Carpenter: They're completely different types of insects. Hornets are wasps in anybody's definition. Bees are a group of hymenoptera but they're not usually called wasps. A hornet is basically just a large wasp. Also, bees provision their nests with pollen and nectar, and hornets don't do that -- they're predators.

MTV: The Green Hornet's attack plan is to appear as a villain, but to act as a hero. Could hornets be considered heroes of the insect kingdom, or are they more villainous?

Carpenter: Well, I guess to the insects they're more villainous, but as far as humans go -- except to the extent that you might be suffering from anaphylaxis if you get stung or you encounter a nest -- they're not. Because they're predators of other insects, they can actually be beneficial.

MTV: So kind of like the way that spiders eat mosquitoes?

Carpenter: Exactly. Hornets sustain life by eating other insects. They're pestiferous in one situation that's crucial for humans, and that's honey bee colonies. In the Middle East and various other places, you cannot successfully keep honey bee colonies because the hornets come along and destroy them. And obviously that's not just a nuisance, that's a serious pest.

MTV: Are there any types of hornets that are green?

Carpenter: No. Not the true hornets. There are social wasps in the world that are green, like paper wasps in Madagascar.

MTV: What color are hornets usually?

Carpenter: They're usually yellow or orange or reddish and they have black on them.

MTV: In The Green Hornet, there's a repeated slogan: "What happens when you corner a hornet? You get stung." Would you say that's accurate?

Carpenter: [Laughter] Yeah, sure, that's accurate. That's what they use their stingers for -- they don't use them to hunt, they use them for defense.

MTV: When they hunt, how do they kill their prey?

Carpenter: Because they're pretty good-sized wasps, usually they just crush them in their jaws. There are certain species -- like the giant hornet -- that specialize in preying on other social wasps and bees. And a single worker of those is so big they can crush honey bees easily. A single worker can take out most of a honey bee colony.

MTV: How many bees are in a colony?

Carpenter: It would typically be thousands.

MTV: How long would that take?

Carpenter: Probably quite a long time, but they might break off and leave and return with the colony mates to help them carry out the work. And the giant hornets do mass raids, so several of them go out at once, whereas -- with other species of hornets -- a single worker attacks.

MTV: How would one go about defeating a hornet? What are its weaknesses?

Carpenter: They're very big and strong and when they sting they don't just load you up with venom, they can also draw blood. So if you're going to try to get rid of the colony and you don't want to do a lot of collateral damage, you may have to wear suits that are made out of plastic mail, which they've invented in Japan.

MTV: Like chain mail but plastic?

Carpenter: Yeah, it's not easy to work with. And certain honey bees have evolved, at least for one species, wherein a bunch of worker bees will get together and surround the hornet and basically smother it.

MTV: Do hornets have any known enemies?

Carpenter: Other hornets. One species of hornet, for example, Vespa tropica -- specializes in killing other hornets. And the same goes for the giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia.

MTV: Seth Rogen reportedly lost about 30 pounds to play The Green Hornet ---- is being svelte a typical characteristic of a hornet? Have you encountered any instances of hornet obesity?

Carpenter: [Laughs] I wouldn't call it obesity but I wouldn't call them svelte or slim in depth. Although they can fly pretty fast, they generally fly fairly slowly. They're kind of ponderous. They don't expect that anything's going to want to mess with them. They've been documented to kill water buffalo. The giant hornet queens can grow up to four inches long. There's one species that's been introduced into the U.S. from Europe -- Vespa crabro -- it's a bit over an inch long. And that's much more typical of the species.

MTV: Would you choose a hornet to be your superhero alter--ego?

Carpenter: Well I might, but that would be cheating because I'm a man and the hornets that are doing the damage are all female -- it's the queens and the workers that sting. The males are drones -- they do very little. They basically mate, which isn't bad if that's all you do in life [laughs]. But the fearsome aspect -- it's always the females, because the sting itself is a modified egg--laying device, so it's only the females that have it. I think I'd choose another kind of insect. Probably one that bites. The hornet biting is just for hunting -- when people say they've been "bitten" by a wasp or bee it just means they've been stung. So it's a female that's done it. The males don't have stingers. They couldn't sting you if they tried.

MTV: Wow -- so I guess that's actually an inaccuracy when it comes to The Green Hornet being male.

Carpenter: [Laughs] well you might want to point out that it's a bit of an inconsistency

Will this little lesson about the hornet enhance your "Green Hornet" viewing experience?