There are a variety of stinging insects in the order Hymenoptera, including wasps, bees, and hornets. We’ve how to identify a bee vs a wasp in our article, “The Difference Between Wasps and Bees”. But what’s the difference between a wasp and a hornet? Are wasps and hornets the same thing? That’s a bit tricky. It’s kind of a square/rectangle situation.
Hornets are actually a type of wasp, much like a square is a type of rectangle. However, like squares and rectangles, not all wasps are hornets. Hornets have many traits that make them stand out from the wasp crowd. They look a bit different from other wasps, behave differently, and have different chemical concentrations in their venom. Here, we’ll look at what defines a hornet and how they are different from, and similar to, other types of wasps.
You can identify a hornet vs a wasp partially using their physical appearance. While wasps all share a similar body plan (narrow waist with tapered abdomen), hornets are bigger than most wasps and they vary in color and markings. A giant wasp, hornets are typically ½ to 2 inches long, with the Asian giant hornet reaching more than 1.6 inches (4 cm) in length. While some hornets share yellow and black coloring with some other wasps, the patterns are different. Yellow jackets are banded, while hornets have yellow facial markings, yellow abdominal tips, and yellow thorax markings. The rest of the body is black. Some species of hornets are light brown. In contrast, some other wasp species can be all black, red, yellow, or even blue or green.
Hornets are one of about 1,000 species of social wasps. Social wasps build communal nests in which different individuals serve specific roles. There are queens, drones (males), and workers (sterile females). Queens and drones are responsible for producing the next generation of wasps, while workers expand the nest that the queen started at the beginning of the spring and provision the larvae.
Wasps feed insects or carrion to their young. Some even lay eggs inside their prey and the larvae feed on the decomposing body. Hornets are of a type that brings live insects back to the nest for their larvae to feed on. They do not scavenge, and they don’t parasitize dead insects. Adults also eat insects but may add to their diet by feeding on fruit, nectar, and tree sap. These feeding habits make hornets important natural pest control experts as well as minor pollinators. They don’t serve as decomposers and they aren’t as important for plants as bees or even some other wasps. However, they still play an important role in the ecosystem. Wasps and hornets are great to have around gardens. In addition to removing pests, the only fruit hornets tend to consume is windfall fruit, so they also help keep orchards free of rotting fruit, preventing the influx of some other pest species.
While all social wasps defend their nests, sometimes aggressively, hornets are considered one of the least aggressive wasps.
While hornet and wasp nests are similar, you can often distinguish between a hornet nest vs a wasp nest. Hornets often build nests high off the ground, either in tree hollows, shrubs, building eaves, chimneys, or wall cavities. Like other wasps, hornets make a papery substance from chewed up wood and saliva, which they mold into a nest full of layers of hexagonal cells. While many wasps build such papier-mâché nests, the size can often tell you if it belongs to a wasp or hornet. Hornet nests are very large, reaching a diameter of several feet. Hornets do not build mud nests or nest underground like some other wasp species. However, similar to other wasps, hornets abandon their nests at the end of the summer and the queen starts a brand new one the following spring.
Only female bees and wasps can sting because the stinger is a modified ovipositor (egg-laying organ). You may have heard that bees and wasps can only sting once. This is only true of honeybees. They have large barbs on their stingers that cannot be easily removed from the skin. Because of this, the stinger is torn out of the honeybee’s body as she flies away. Other bees and wasps, including hornets, can remove their stingers easily from a target to sting again. The only thing you’ll learn from being stung multiple times by the same insect is that it’s not a honeybee.
There is, however, a difference between a hornet vs wasp sting. While hornets are not particularly aggressive, their stings are more painful than those of other wasps. They have a higher concentration of a specific chemical in their venom that increases the pain response in humans. While all wasp venom contains a compound called acetylcholine, hornet venom contains more. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter (signal sender) that occurs naturally in humans. When used by wasps, it triggers pain receptors. Higher levels mean a more painful sting.
While hornets are a type of wasp, they differ from other wasps in a few important ways. They can be distinguished from other wasps in physical appearance, some behaviors, nest size, and sting. They are similar to other wasps in many ways as well, most notably in their ecological role. All wasps control common pest insects and help pollinate flowers. In addition, hornets eat windfall fruit, helping cut down on rot and additional pests. Even though they have a more painful sting than other wasps, they’re relatively docile. If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone. Considering their role in the ecosystem, we should all strive to leave them alone, so they can continue their important work.