Interesting Facts About Hornets: Large Wasps With Paper Nests

Updated on November 7, 2017
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Linda Crampton is a science teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about animals and plants.

A European hornet
A European hornet | Source

What Are Hornets?

Hornets are large and interesting wasps with complex behaviors. They are social insects and live in highly organized colonies. The colony builds an intricate nest from a papery substance made when the hornets chew wood and mix it with their saliva. The resulting structure is a wonderful feat of engineering and is both lightweight and strong.

Hornets eat plant matter and are also predators of other insects. They will sting humans if they're disturbed, but most are not aggressive at other times. While the sting of some species is no more dangerous than the sting of a common wasp, in other species the sting is very painful and may also be dangerous.

Hornets are widespread and are found in Asia, Europe, Africa, and North America. At the moment, one species of hornet is creating a serious problem for humans. The Asian hornet or Asian predatory wasp is native to China but has colonized other countries as an invasive species. The species is of great concern since it kills bees. A group of Asian hornets can rapidly destroy a honeybee colony, sometimes within a few hours.

A western yellow jacket queen (Vespula pensylvanica) in North America: yellow jackets are a type of wasp but aren't hornets.
A western yellow jacket queen (Vespula pensylvanica) in North America: yellow jackets are a type of wasp but aren't hornets. | Source

What's the Difference Between a Hornet and a Wasp?

  • A hornet is a type of wasp.
  • The insect family known as the Vespidae contains hornets, yellow jackets (which are the most familiar type of wasp for many people), paper wasps, potter wasps, and pollen wasps.
  • True hornets belong to the genus Vespa within the family Vespidae. The genus is the first part of the scientific name for a living thing. Hornets aren't native to North America, but the European hornet (Vespa crabro) has been introduced to the continent.
  • Yellow jackets belong to either the genus Vespula or the genus Dolichovespula in the family Vespidae.
  • The bald-faced hornet of North America is actually a type of yellow jacket, although it has black and white markings instead of the black and yellow markings of the common yellow jacket wasps. Its scientific name is Dolichovespula maculata.

A hornet nest
A hornet nest | Source

Hornet Nests

Hornet nests are aerial and are found in treetops, under roofs or decks, in sheds or garages, in hollow tree trunks, or in other areas that are raised off the ground. The nest is large and is shaped like a football. It contains horizontal combs, which hang in tiers and are connected to each other. Each comb contains many chambers or cells for eggs and larvae. The nest is often surrounded by layers of papery material that insulate the structure.

Some nests are free-hanging and have a stalk called a petiole which attaches the nest to an object such as a tree branch. Other nests are built in an enclosed space that provides support for the nest.

Some people like to collect hornet nests so that they can examine and admire their intricate structure, but it's very important to do this after all the hornets have left at the end of the season. Despite their larger size, most hornet species (but not all of them) are less aggressive than the common yellow jacket wasps. However, all hornets will become aggressive if their nest is being attacked.

A hornet nest that has been broken open and partially rebuilt, showing the horizontal combs and the papery outer layers of the nest
A hornet nest that has been broken open and partially rebuilt, showing the horizontal combs and the papery outer layers of the nest | Source

The Colony

The only member of the hornet colony that reproduces is the queen. Most hornets in the colony are workers. The worker hornets make the nest (after it has been started by the queen and the workers have developed from the eggs that she laid). Workers also feed the young and protect the colony from danger. The males mate with new queens and die soon afterwards. There are only a few males in a colony.

In temperate climates, a hornet nest is inhabited for only one year. The worker bees, the males, and the season's queen die in the autumn. The new queens survive. They leave the nest and spend the winter hiding under loose tree bark, in the soil, or even in a building.

Another European hornet
Another European hornet | Source

The European Hornet

In the spring, the new queens of the European hornet emerge from their winter hiding places and find a place to build a nest. They chew wood and mix it with saliva to form a light but strong construction material which is similar to paper mache.

The nest is generally built in an area that provides support for the nest instead of being free-hanging. Nests can be found in hollow cavities in tree trunks and in attics, barns, and sheds. They may even be built in cavities in walls.

European Hornets Guarding Their Nest Entrance

The Queen, Larvae, Pupae, and Workers

  • The European hornet queen makes the first cells of the nest and lays a fertilized egg in each one. After about five to eight days, the eggs hatch into young forms of hornet known as larvae or grubs.
  • The queen feeds the larvae a paste made of her saliva and insects that she has chewed. She also continues to make new cells and to lay eggs.
  • At about two weeks of age, each larva makes a silk cap to fit over the top of its cell. Inside the sealed cell the larva turns into a pupa.
  • Inside the pupa, the young hornet changes into an adult worker bee. The worker then emerges from its cell and takes over the jobs of building the nest and feeding the larvae.
  • The larvae release a sweet secretion which the workers eat. The secretion contains amino acids as well as sugars. It provides the workers with energy and encourages them to keep feeding the grubs.
  • Once enough workers have emerged from the pupae, the queen's sole job is to lay eggs.
  • European hornets fly during the night as well as during the day to collect food.
  • The workers sometimes damage trees because they strip the bark to get to the sap. They can also damage fruit crops. However, they may help humans by killing harmful insects.

European Hornets Feeding on Tree Sap in North America

The Drones and New Queens

  • In late summer males (or drones) are produced from unfertilized eggs.
  • In the fall new queens develop from fertilized eggs.
  • The new queens leave the colony and mate with males from other colonies.
  • The queens store the sperm in their bodies until it's needed to fertilize eggs in the spring. They find a place to hide and become dormant over the winter. When the sperm starts to become active in the spring, fertlization begins. The queen is able to produce a new colony from the stored sperm.

Japanese Giant Hornet
Japanese Giant Hornet | Source

The Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia)

The largest hornet in the world is the Asian giant hornet, or Vespa mandarinia. It has a body length of about two inches, a wingspan of about three inches, and a stinger that is about a quarter of an inch long. The Japanese giant hornet is a subspecies of the Asian giant hornet and has the scientific name Vespa mandarinia japonica.

Native bees in Japan have developed a fascinating way to defend themselves against the much larger hornets. When a hornet scout finds a honeybee colony, it releases communication chemicals called attack pheromones. If the scout returns to its own colony, the pheromones will attract the other hornets and trigger their attack on the bees.

The honeybees can detect the pheromones released by the hornet scout. They allow the hornet to approach and lure it into their hive. The bees then surround and cover the unfortunate hornet, forming a "bee ball".

The honeybees in the bee ball vibrate their wing muscles rapidly, raising the temperature around the hornet to as high as 115°F (46°C). The crowd of bees also releases a large amount of carbon dioxide. The combination of high temperature and high carbon dioxide concentration kills the scout, preventing it from communicating with its colony. Bees introduced to Japan from another country (such as European honeybees) haven't developed the overheating behavior and are often slaughtered by attacking hornets.

Japanese honeybees in a ball around two hornets: the ball heats and kills the hornets
Japanese honeybees in a ball around two hornets: the ball heats and kills the hornets | Source

Asian Giant Hornets and Humans

The sting of the Asian giant hornet is very painful for humans and is potentially dangerous. The venom is powerful and contains chemicals that can destroy human tissue and interfere with nerve action. A significant number of people in Japan die from giant hornet stings every year.

Some people in Japan like to eat giant hornets in either a raw or fried form. The secretion produced by the larvae to attract workers is known as vespa amino acid mixture, or VAAM. It gives the workers energy and is the basis of a Japanese sports drink, which contains synthetic chemicals similar to those in the larval secretion.

The Asian Hornet or Vespa velutina
The Asian Hornet or Vespa velutina | Source

The Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina)

The Asian hornet is sometimes called the Asian predatory wasp or the yellow-legged hornet. It's not the same insect as the Asian giant hornet. The common names of hornets can be confusing, so it's always a good idea to check the scientific name when reading or hearing about the insects.

The Asian hornet can be recognized by its generally dark body, the orange coloration on the rear half of its abdomen, the yellow or orange bands on the abdomen, the orange face, and the yellow legs. The insect is believed to have entered France in a shipment of Chinese pottery in 2004 and has spread to other European countries.

In France, the Asian hornet builds its nests in tall trees, under decks, in sheds, or in garages. The hornet attacks bees to provide food for its larvae. The chewed bees provide a protein-rich meal for the grubs. The hornet rips a bee's body apart, removing the head, legs, and wings. The thorax (the section in front of the abdomen that bears the wings and contains the wing muscles) makes a high-quality food.

The Asian Hornet or Asian Predatory Wasp

An Invasive Insect

The Asian hornet is native to China but is now found in France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and Italy. It has also been discovered in Japan and Korea. In 2016, it was found in Britain.

The main concern about the insect is its threat to honeybees. Although Asian hornet venom isn't considered to be especially toxic to humans, because each hornet is large it releases more venom than many other stinging insects. Stings from multiple hornets have hospitalized people in France.

A species of Sarracenia, which is a type of pitcher plant
A species of Sarracenia, which is a type of pitcher plant | Source

Using Pitcher Plants to Catch Hornets

The head of the Nantes Botanical Garden in France has discovered that a particular species of pitcher plant in the garden traps Asian hornets. The plant doesn't catch European hornets, other wasps, or bees. It belongs to the genus Sarracenia and is native to eastern North America.

Pitcher plants are carnivorous. They make food by photosynthesis like other plants, but they also trap and digest insects to obtain nitrogen. They often live in bogs, where the soil is generally low in nitogen.

Pitcher plants have long leaves that form a tube. There are nectaries on the lip of the tube. Like those in flowers, the nectaries on the leaves produce a sweet secretion that attracts insects. Pitcher plants may also release pheromones, which are chemicals that attract insects. When the insects land on the slippery rim of the tube, they fall into it. The plant then digests them with powerful secretions.

It has been suggested that pitcher plants could be used to destroy the Asian hornet. The plants might be helpful, as long as they don't cause problems themselves. Realistically, though, a huge number of pitcher plants would be needed in order to control the hornet colonies. It's also been suggested that the pitcher plant chemicals that attract the hornets could be used in an artificial trap, which might work better. The problem is that we need to learn how to make the attractant chemicals synthetically.

The face of an Asian hornet or predatory wasp that was observed hiding under bark in France
The face of an Asian hornet or predatory wasp that was observed hiding under bark in France | Source

The Problem of Introduced Animals

Hornets are fascinating creatures. A study of the different hornet types and their lives reveals a common observation about life on Earth. An animal species that has inhabited an area for a long time has developed features that help it survive successfully in that environment. However, if the species is moved to a new environment and interacts with creatures that it's never encountered before—or if it doesn't encounter its usual predators—problems may develop.

Honeybee populations around the world are already in trouble due to a variety of stresses. Hopefully the spread of the Asian hornet through Europe can be stopped, removing one source of pressure for the local honeybees.

References

European hornet information from PennState College of Agricultural Sciences

Facts about European hornets from the University of Kentucky

Information about Vespa mandarinia from the University of Washington La Crosse

Honeybees protect themselves from the Japanese giant hornet from Smithsonian Magazine

Vespa velutina facts from Wildscreen Arkive

The Asian hornet has arrived in Britain from the BBC

Pitcher plants in France destroy Asian hornets from the BBC

© 2012 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      When I lived in Europe, I worried far more about being stung by the common wasps that I encountered than by the European hornets. As I say in the article, though, the European hornet can be aggressive if its nest is being disturbed. Some species of hornets seem to be more dangerous than others. Unfortunately, the sting of the Asian giant hornet has killed people.

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      Dad 5 weeks ago

      Do hornets ussally sting or are they like solitary wasps and can a giant Asian hornets sting kill you?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I don't know the specific distance for bald faced hornets, but I've read that most wasps travel up to 200 metres from their nest. Some may travel as far as 1000 metres from the nest.

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      Larry Morris 3 months ago

      How far from the nest do balf faced hornets wander?

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 18 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Vanessa. I haven't seen any reports of the hornet in British Columbia. Its appearance is a scary thought! If you haven't already done so, you might want to contact the Invasive Species Council of British Columbia via their website and see what they think. If they can't identify the insect they might send the photo to an expert who can.

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      Vanessa Montgomery 18 months ago

      Do you know if Asian hornets are in British Columbia ? I took pictures of it and very similar . It doesnt have a yellow head but a black head and enormous orange body with yellow strip on top . Its rather large as well with long yellow legs . I have a picture if I can send it . I also sent it to BC insect websites.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 23 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Thanks for replying.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 23 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Perspycacious. Hornets do carry out some pollination, but not as much as bees. The European hornet is present in North America, but the Asian ones aren't at the moment.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 23 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      Just stopping by. If I see a hornet on a vegetable blossom is it helpful to some extent in polinating, or is it just there chasing some other insects? Did you state or imply that the European Hornet is already in America? Our troubling history of the Chinese Pine Bark Beetle is another bad example of Made In China!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'm glad to hear that your class is so good, Connie.

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      Connie 2 years ago

      My class is awesome

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, apples123!

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      apples123 3 years ago

      amazing facts about hornets : ) '.'

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, DDE. It's nice to meet you!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A well researched Hub we have these hornets in Croatia and you have enlightened me even more on the subject, thanks

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much, Eddy! I appreciate the comment, the vote and the share. I hope that you have a great day, too!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 5 years ago from Wales

      I knew hardly anything on Hornets but I do now!!This is a brilliant hub which I vote up and share. Thank you for sharing and enjoy your day.

      Eddy.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, teaches!

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      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Interesting hub post, Alicia. I have never seen so much facts, data and trivia on these insects.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for the lovely comment, Deb! I appreciate it very much.

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      Deb Hirt 5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Incredibly good information, Alicia, with superb detail. The photos and videos are also very good and well placed.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the visit, Nell. I've been stung by a wasp (or yellow jacket) but not by a hornet, luckily. It is a very scary situation being around wasps if people know that they are allergic to the sting!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      This is a fascinating article and explains so much that I just didn't know about the hornet, I did wonder what the difference between them and wasps were, it seems that they are all the same family, but some of them are more dangerous. I know that wasps hurt like hell when they sting, I got stung a few years back, so hornets frighten the life out of me! purely because I am asthmatic and am always afraid that I will get a reaction, but amazing little things, nell

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the interesting comment, Peggy, and thank you for the votes too. Wasps are very interesting, but some of them certainly can be annoying at times!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      This is a fascinating article Alicia. It is a shame when non native species cause havoc in the environment. The decimation of honey bees world-wide is a huge problem. We have a red bodied wasp or hornet that lives in our area and builds hard mud type of nests against our brick homes. They are named or nick-named mud dobbers. Not sure of their real name. We are constantly chiseling the nests away from our homes. They are not overly aggressive. Up and interesting votes.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Cynthia. I agree - the honeybees have enough problems without the presence of the Asian hornet. This new stress may be very serious for the honeybee population. Thank you for the comment.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 5 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Interesting hub on hornets Alicia, with great information. Especially worrying about the Asian hornets that have established themselves as an invasive species in France. Our European honey bees are under enough pressure without them having to deal with a new predator

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Prasetio! Thank you very much for the visit. I appreciate your comment and vote.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Dear friend, Alicia. You always find the best topic about plants and animal kingdom. I learn many things about hornet from this hub. good job and vote up. Cheers....

      Prasetio

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment and the votes, Tom. I think that hornets are fascinating insects. Some of their behavior is very interesting to observe!

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi my friend very interesting and fascinating information, some of it i did not know before.

      Vote up and more !!!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the interesting comment, moonlake. I've never heard of this idea before! I appreciate your vote.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, drbj. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the hub! I appreciate your visit and the vote.

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      We still have pieces of a hornets nest hanging on our house. If the old nest is left behind the hornets won't come back that is the word out there that I heard so to keep the hornets off our deck we left pieces of the nest. It has worked. Interesting hub enjoyed reading it. Voted up.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      Via your hub is the closest I plan to get to a hornet, Alicia. What fascinating creatures they are and what a fascinating, educational hub, m'dear. I'm amazed at how the Japanese honeybees have developed their 'beeball' technique to conquer a hornet invader. They are definitely banzai bees! This hub is an Up+.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Martie! I appreciate your comment and visit very much. Hornets are very interesting insects to study!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 5 years ago from South Africa

      Truly the most interesting and fascinating information about Hornets, and accompanied by awesome videos. Alicia, this is really excellent work, well-researched. Bravo!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the visit and the comment, Mhatter99.

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Fascinating creatures. Thank you for sharing.