Some of the most dangerous members of the Vespidae or wasp family belong to the genus Vespa – the hornets’ genus. Generally much larger and more aggressive than wasps, bees, and even most yellow jackets, hornets are a pest to be aware of at all times. They can be the biggest enemy of beekeepers but they can also be a nightmare for homeowners, hikers, and campers alike. A hornet’s sting can be extremely painful and sometimes – depending on the species – it can even be deadly.
All that depends on the exact species of hornets you’re dealing with, however. There are some, like the European hornet, for example, that are less aggressive and have less potent stings. Others, like the giant Asian hornet, are among the most dangerous insects on the planet. And that’s precisely why it’s so important to know exactly what you’re dealing with when you spot a hornets’ nest near you.
It’s also worth mentioning that some species such as the North American bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula Maculata) is actually wasp species and not actual hornets. The same goes for the Australian hornet (Abispa ephippium), which is a type of potter wasp.
Hornets, wasps, and yellow jackets frequently get mixed up by people as they are both members of the same family and are similar in a lot of ways. Hornets are generally bigger than wasps, however – up to twice bigger sometimes. And, unlike yellow jackets, they usually prefer to build their nests high on trees and buildings, with only a few exceptions.
So, which are the most common hornet species around the world you should look out for and what are the main differences between them?
The only true hornet found in North America and also common in Europe, this hornet is one of the lesser offenders in the Vespa genus. It’s not aggressive and stings only when provoked. European hornets are mostly carnivores and prefer to hunt other insects such as moths, wasps, bees, beetles, dragonflies, and others. This makes them a problem for beekeepers but it can also make them a beneficial insect as they can exterminate other insect pests. They can also feed on fallen fruits and other sugary foods during the summer months, however. Their stings are usually only dangerous if they cause an allergic reaction.
This species goes by many names – bald-faced hornet, white-faced hornet, black and white hornet, blackjacket, bull wasp, or just black hornet. The official name of this insect Dolichovespula maculate and it’s actually not a hornet at all – it’s a yellow jacket species. We’re including it here, however, because it’s commonly known as a hornet, plus, like many hornets, these insects also build hanging nests on plants and trees. They are common throughout Canada and the U.S., and they can be quite aggressive. They are predatory which can make them beneficial when they are hunting down other pests. However, their aggressiveness makes them a problem for homeowners and farmers. They also have the unique ability to squirt their venom into the eyes of vertebrate intruders such as us.
Asian giant hornet
Vespa mandarinia or the Asian giant hornet is the world’s largest hornet. The Japanese hornet or Japanese giant hornet (V. m. japonica) is a subspecies of the Asian giant hornet and together they are also known as Yak-killer hornets. They are common to the tropical regions of Eastern Asia and they create their nest by digging or co-opting rodents’ tunnels. They are a predatory species that can feed on any other insect they manage to kill. They also feed on the honey of beehives. Their size can reach 45 mm (1.8 inches) and their wingspan is around 75 mm (3.0 inches) making them a sight to behold.
Often confused with the Asian giant hornet, the Asian hornet is actually a separate species altogether – it’s called Vespa velutina. It’s also known as Yellow-legged hornet and it is common not only to its indigenous Asia but also to Europe and the UK where it’s considered to be a major concern. The Asian hornet is not only smaller than the Asian giant hornet, but it’s also a bit smaller than the European hornet as well with workers measuring about 20 mm in length (0.8 inches). They are mostly carnivores and they are expert bee-killers which is why they are so hated by beekeepers. They are also more aggressive and dangerous than European hornets although not as much as Asian giant hornets.
Ground hornets or “Cicada-killers” are another species that aren’t actually true hornets but are often regarded as such which is why we’ll mention them as well. They are one of the largest digger wasp species in the world and can reach up to 2 inches in length (close to 50 mm). They have bright yellow and black markings and resemble yellow jackets. They build their nests in ground tunnels or in the foundations and walls of houses and other structures, which makes them quite the problem for homeowners. They prefer loose soil so keeping your yard or property well-watered and your home’s exterior in a good condition are good ways to prevent them ground hornet infestations which is vital considering their aggressive nature.
This Vespa orientalis species is native to Southwest Asia, Northeast Africa, Southern Europe, and the Middle East. It’s also been introduced to some areas such as Mexico. It has a yellow-brownish color and it builds its nest underground. It feeds on plants’ nectar but it also scavenges for insects and dead animals for protein. Because it’s a scavenger, the Oriental hornet is known to transmit certain dangerous diseases from dead animals or infected plants. They are a huge pest to honey bees as it frequently attacks bee colonies. This isn’t a very aggressive species but they don’t hesitate to sting when provoked.
Lastly, we have another species that isn’t actually a true hornet. Paper hornets are a colloquial name often used for paper wasps or Vespid Polistinae. There are over 300 subspecies of paper wasps throughout the world, some large enough to be mistaken for hornets and 22 of them common to North America. They have black and yellow bodies and their nests are easy to recognize because their nests are not covered and their multiple cells are easily visible. They are less aggressive than most hornet species but they will defend themselves if they spot you near their nest.
With thousands of wasp species around the world and only about 20 species of true hornets, a lot of the insects that we call hornets are actually wasps or yellow jackets. No matter how we call them, however, it’s important to differentiate between some of the most prominent species such as the Asian hornet, the Asian giant hornet, and others, because they can have different behaviors, different nesting and feeding habits, and more or less potent stings. If you ever find yourself stung by a hornet-like insect, keep in mind that their venom can be very dangerous and seek medical assistance immediately.