Insects are among the best-adapted creatures on the planet for finding homes, reproducing, and expanding into new territory. People group all flying insects into one category--annoying--but because they live alongside us and are essential to the ecosystem, we should know how to distinguish hornets and wasps. Pests or not, characteristics of the hornet vs wasp are important in knowing how to avoid their stings and remove their nests. These two highly social bugs are similar enough to get them easily confused, so we've delineated the key features of a hornet vs wasp.
 

Hornets: What You Need To Know

hornet


Hornets are a type of wasp that inhabit Asia, Europe, and North America. They have spread to North America, and in the United States they live on the eastern coast in large numbers. Hornets are somewhat larger than other subfamilies of wasps but share nesting and stinging characteristics.


Large Size

Hornets are the biggest wasp, and this is most easily observed in their fatter bodies rather than their length. If you were to compare them side by side, this size difference would be obvious; however, in nature, such ready comparisons aren't realistic. Since hornets, like other wasps, are larger than bees, they tend to be more intimidating to humans.


Behavior

Hornets are an aggressive genus, like all wasps. The only hornet that lacks aggressive tendencies is the European variety which, uncharacteristically, tends toward shyness and won't attack even when a predator is close to the nesting area.

So what is the difference in a hornet vs wasp sting? Hornet stings are among the most painful of wasp stings. All wasps will sting repeatedly and they do not die from stinging, unlike their bee counterparts. For this reason, humans are naturally more fearful and cautious of all wasps, especially hornets.


Nesting Habits

Since hornets are a social animal, they build colonies. A single queen produces multiple female (non-fertile) workers who take care of business in the nest, and once established grow the colony. Typically, hornets built nests in eaves, trees, and other high places.

Hornets use gravity as an ally and add cells to the nest as they construct it, like putting an addition on a house. At about 700 workers strong, the hornets produce fertile females who then fly from the nest to mate during "nuptial flights." Newly fertilized queens then venture off to set up their own colonies.


Swarming Habits

Hornets can swarm like bees do. This behavior is particularly likely if a nest is disturbed and is the most dangerous possibility when encountering hornets. However, because hornets lay down chemical pheromone trails that lead other hornets down the same path, a swarm can occur from a lone insect encounter.

The pheromone trail also releases chemicals that increase aggression, so if a single hornet is encountered it is best to leave the area and thoroughly wash all clothing and gear as the chemicals can persist and lead to later hornet attacks if encountering a hornet later in the same vicinity.

 

Asian vs European

Hornets are native to Asia, and that is where they are found in the greatest number and taxonomic variety. But they have spread globally and made permanent homes in North America. The European hornet, which has also spread to North America, is a less aggressive variety but since it is difficult to distinguish species on site, all hornets should be avoided.


Hornet vs Yellowjacket

Yellowjackets are also a variety of wasp but they are not directly related to hornet. A hornet vs wasp vs yellowjacket is of taxonomic interest, and because they live in the same territories and look generally alike, they will be difficult to distinguish. Humans should treat all wasps alike since they pose the same danger. Hornets are a bit more intimidating on sight because they are larger, but both of these wasps of the same subfamily are slightly different in behavior.


Wasps: What You Need To Know

Bee and a Wasps

Wasps are a category of eusocial insect. Their habitats range across the globe, and they are particularly prevalent in warmer regions, having originated in Asia. They have adapted to deserts and temperate climates and serve the larger ecosystem by controlling other bug populations. The most important distinction between eusocial, flying, stinging insects is differentiating bees and wasps, since bees have a less painful sting, are usually less aggressive, and with a little practice, can be readily distinguished from all wasps.


Hornet vs Wasp: Characteristics

In defining hornet vs wasp, the key features are size, color, and texture. Hornets are the largest and often include more of a color spectrum, with either yellow and brown hues or black and white coloring. Yellowjackets resemble hornets but never appear white. In fact, they usually have a nearly uniform yellow and black look. Hornets have the most striking coloring, especially when appearing in black and white. All wasps are hairless and have smoothly-textured bodies, as opposed to bees that have a furry or hairy component. In this respect, wasps are similar to ants. All wasps are larger than bees, with hornets being the largest.


Color Variation In A Hornet vs Wasp vs Yellowjacket

Wasps come in a huge variety in terms of size, coloring, and even habits. Since hornets are a specific (but widespread) category of wasp, their range of colors and behavior is narrow. To simplify, hornets often appear black and white or yellow and brown--not the standard black and yellow of yellowjackets. Since they are sometimes black and yellow and size is difficult to compare without side-by-side observation, identifying hornets requires close viewing to determine the exact genera and species.


Nesting Habits

Wasps are often solitary, building or digging small nests that benefit only themselves or their offspring, but some species are social and construct colonies similar to bees or ants. Wasp homes are gray, dry, multi-celled structures that blend in, especially with wood. Wasps can build nests in the dark and are experts at defying gravity. Social wasps are generally limited to several hundred individuals. Removal of nests should be done by a professional, as once they are established all wasps are aggressive in defending their territory.


Parasitic Habits

Many wasp species are parasitic, meaning they take over another wasp or creature's territory, offspring, or body. Parasites often work together with their hosts, letting them live but using them for their own life or propagation. Wasps, however, often use another creature's body to lay eggs, provide feed, and then kill their host. An example is the tarantula hawk, a large wasp inhabiting desert areas that swoops down to sting a tarantula, paralyzing it. The wasp drags the tarantula back to its den, lays its eggs on the spider's abdomen, and uses the spider (while living) as a food source for the eggs. The tarantula dies once the eggs mature.


Natural Pest Control

Wasps are quite capable when it comes to killing other insects and are thus valuable as natural exterminators. Although wasps are dangerous, they can be useful allies in wild places. In populated areas, however, they create a danger to humans due to their aggressive nature when nesting near homes.


Hornet vs Wasp: What Is The Difference?

Understanding a hornet vs wasp is straightforward from pictures and photos, but as pests, they are difficult to distinguish. They have several diverging characteristics, however, that can be important when trying to remove or exterminate them. In addition, since hornets are often confused with yellowjackets, a third distinction may be necessary. The common element to all these insects is their highly social nature, which makes them work effectively as a single organism, and this highly adaptive characteristic is easiest to appreciate in bees and ants.


Hornet vs Wasp vs Bee And More

Wasps are a category of insect fitting into Hymenoptera (order) and Apocrita (suborder) that share a common ancestor with bees and ants. That ancestor, millions of years old, gives wasps (including hornets), bees, and ants several common characteristics. This is most striking when comparing wasps and ants, two creatures that are easily distinguishable on sight. Ants are, broadly, terrestrial wasps. They evolved skills in negotiating the ground and climbing rather than flying. Ants also sting, nest socially, have lone queens, are sometimes parasitic, and mate during flight.


Hornet vs Wasp vs Yellowjacket

To confuse the hornet vs wasp categorization people often confuse hornets with a common type of wasp called a yellowjacket. Of all wasp types, yellowjackets are closest in size and appearance to hornets so they are difficult to distinguish at first glance. Since both nest and both sting, knowing the difference is not important on a practical level. If nesting is a problem where you live, calling in a professional exterminator to help figure out a hornet vs wasp vs yellowjacket is the best option.

bee on a flower

 

Conclusion

Hornets vs wasps: which is more dangerous? The answer is both. It's advisable to know what kind of hornet or wasp lives in your region and climate. Most wasps are only dangerous when people encounter them near their nests because of the possibility of swarming. Yet, wasp stings are painful and a single insect can inflict multiple stings. Near a house (typically on a tree or under an eave) any wasp nest should be removed. They will only grow larger and establish new nests, possibly nearby. While wasps are ecologically essential, distinguishing them is imperative for self-protection.

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