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The hornet

David Chapman / 28 August 2019

Wildlife expert David Chapman looks at the European hornet, the frequently misunderstood gentle giant.

European hornet
European hornet photographed by David Chapman

The very name, ‘hornet’, is enough to strike fear into the hearts of most people. My own preconceived notion of what a hornet might be like took some time to dissipate as I watched the hornet activity centred on a mound of old vegetation with ferns and heather growing out of it.

I had stumbled upon a hornets’ nest. Clearly not a big one because it was July and there were only ever one or two hornets flying back and forth. I left a comfortable distance between me and them to settle down and watch.

Hornets are members of the wasp family but the first thing that struck me was the difference in size between a hornet and the wasp you might see buzzing around your fizzy, sweet drink on a hot summer’s day. The European hornet, Vespa crabro, can be up to 3.5cm long and though that doesn’t sound big it’s surprising how much bigger that looks in the flesh!

The largest hornets are the queens. It is the responsibility of the queen to take the hornet family from one year to the next by hibernating. She emerges in spring, often May, and begins making a small nest by chewing wood and re-constituting it with her own saliva into a honeycomb hanging by means of a stalk known as a petiole. At the same time she starts to build a protective outer wall. These nests are usually built in tree holes but may be found in attics and outbuildings, mine was in a hole in the ground.

Life cycle of the horner

The queen lays eggs which take only about a week to hatch into larvae. She gathers a high protein diet of insects to help her larvae develop quickly. When they are ready to pupate the larvae spin a silken cap at the entrance to their honeycomb cell.

The first batch of larvae are sterile worker hornets, their role is to enlarge the nest and collect food to sustain the next generation of hornets laid by the same queen. They extend the nest downwards by adding further petioles from the first layer, creating a multi-storey effect within the nest.

This process can be repeated through the summer so that the nest might develop dramatically in size. By late summer a hornet’s nest will typically contain a few hundred hornets. As autumn approaches the hornets make special cells inside their nest into which the queen lays eggs that will hatch into fertile male and female hornets. These females are destined to become queens for next year and their task is to fly the nest and search for males from other nests with which to mate.

As autumn progresses the workers and fertile males will all die leaving the nest to fall into disuse. The queens feed themselves on insects, nectar, windfall fruit and tree sap to put on weight before finding a safe place to hibernate and begin the cycle again next year.

Do hornets sting?

The one question I had when I was sitting with my hornet family was ‘Do they sting?’. The answer is ‘yes’ but they are less likely to sting than common wasps and since I have only been stung by a wasp twice in my life I felt quietly confident about escaping unhurt.

The Asian Hornet

In recent years a hitherto non-native species called the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina), has been seen in the UK. It is thought that the Asian hornet was imported into France inside crates from China and it is now spreading across European countries. Records in the UK are mostly from southern England and The Channel Islands but some have been spotted as far north as Lancashire and Yorkshire. Many people fear its expansion in our countryside because it preys on other pollinating insects. This is a particular problem when these hornets come into contact with a honey bee nest. With such a bounty of food available it is thought that one Asian hornet can kill up to fifty honey bees in a day.

Asian hornets are slightly smaller than European hornets, but still noticeably bigger than common wasps; they have brown legs with characteristic yellow ends and their abdomen is dark brown/black except for the fourth segment which is yellow.

If you think you might have seen the nest of an Asian hornet, do not disturb the nest, take a photo and report your sighting. This can be done through the website of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology or download the mobile app ‘Asian Hornet Watch’ on your smartphone, this app also has information to help with identification.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.