Wasps vs Hornets

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Both wasps and hornets are formidable insect predators. While they share some similarities in appearance and behavior, each insect has distinct characteristics that sets it apart. Both are valuable members of the ecosystem with a role to play. However, when present in large numbers, they can make a large negative impact on honey bee colonies. Luckily, there are steps beekeepers can take to safeguard their hives.

Close up or wasp insect showing distinct features.

Many insects prey on other insects. Therefore, it comes as no surprise to find both wasps and hornets on the list of honey bee predators. Often, this is no big problem for strong colonies but the beekeeper needs to be aware of the risk.

Anatomy Differences in Wasps & Hornets

When they are buzzing by your head “at warp speed”, you may not notice and major differences in the anatomies of these insects.

They both belong to the scientific order Hymenoptera and have long bodies with a distinct waist-or joining section.

Some may sport black and yellow stripes but this is not always so. Close inspection reveals some subtle differences.

Anatomical differences between sleek body of wasp vs hornet with heavier body.

Wasps

Wasps are typically slenderer than hornets or honey bees. They have narrow waists and smooth skin (or exoskeletons). They do not look fuzzy like a honey bee or bumble bee.

Their pair of antennae are long and thin with a distinct bend. But, not as segmented as the honey bee antennae.

Wasps can sip nectar but they have chewing mouthparts too. This enables them to tear insects apart for food.

Some species are solitary wasps that live alone. Social wasps, like yellow jackets and paper wasps, live in family groups or colonies. They have a caste system consisting of queens, workers and drones.

Hornets

However, hornets tend to be larger and bulkier than most species of wasps, with queens reaching lengths of up to 1.5 inches. Their exoskeleton (skin) is not as smoother as that of the wasp – it has a rougher texture.

Like wasps, hornet have chewing mouthparts and long antennae that aid them in hunting. Hornets construct large papery nests made from wood pulp mixed with saliva.

Paper wasp on small nest and large hornet colony.

Behavioral Differences

When we look at the behavior differences between wasps vs hornets, we must consider nesting habits, foraging behavior and aggression levels.

Behavior of Wasps

Wasps are scavengers and highly adaptable in their feeding habits. Beekeepers may not like the fact that wasps hunt and eat honey bees. But, they play an important role in controlling populations of pest insects that destroy crops.

Social wasps exhibit complex social structures within their colonies with members performing certain tasks: such as egg laying, food gathering, etc.

Wasps in general are quite aggressive defenders of their nests. Having a smooth stinger, they can and will sting repeatedly to defend their home.

Yellow wasp eating caterpillar and hornet eating spider.

Hornet Behavior

Hornets are more solitary hunters than wasps. While they do have some social tendencies regarding life inside the nest, it is common to see only one hornet in a foraging area. They do not tend to hunt in groups.

Due to their large size, hornets are formidable hunters. They prey on a variety of insects including bees, caterpillars and even wasps.

Hornets can deliver painful stings multiple times and are very aggressive in defending their nests. Hornet stings are painful – even if you are not allergic to venom.

However, they are less likely to sting humans unless provoked. Do not mess with hornet nests! They often build aerial nests high in trees.

Infographic chart showing differences between wasps vs hornets.

Impact on Honey Bee Colonies

Predation by wasps and hornets can have a negative impact on honey bee colonies. This is especially true in certain regions of the country. And, it seems to be a bigger problem in late summer when wasp nests are at peak population.

  • reduce adult bee population
  • steal hive resources
  • cause stress

Prey on Adult Bees

Both wasps and hornets pose significant threats to honey bee colonies. They hunt and catch foraging honey bees while in the field. Even worse, they sometimes target bees returning to the hive laden with pollen and nectar.

Wasps, particularly species like yellow jackets, hover near hive entrances, capturing bees as they enter or exit. Hornets are also adept hunters and can swiftly decimate bee populations, especially in the vicinity of their nests.

Personally, I have more problems with yellow jacket wasps hunting near the hive entrance. This is why I use DIY yellow jacket traps to attempt to reduce their numbers.

However, if you have a large colony of European hornets nearby – they can reek havoc on weak colonies.

Raiding Hive Resources

In addition to killing off the colony work force, wasps and hornets will raid honey bee hives for valuable resources. Inside the hive, they steal honey, pollen and may eat bee brood.

This behavior diminishes the food reserves of the bee colony and creates havoc and stress in the social structure.

Indirect Effects on Colony Health

A constant threat of predators increases stress among worker bees. This leads to poor bee health (just as stress harms human health). Foraging may be reduced as adults are busy fighting off attackers.

Over a long period, this stress may make the colony more susceptible to honey bee diseases and pests. A hive that is under stress also results in honey bees that are more aggressive or defensive.

Reduced hive entrance to protect hive from wasp and hornet predators.

Management Strategies

It is not necessary or desirable to kill every wasp and hornet in your area. They have an important role to play in balance of the ecosystem.

However, if you have them living in an area that presents a risk to humans – you may need to destroy them. And, in most cases, there is certainly no harm in reducing the number of nests near your beehives.

In many cases, the number of yellow jacket nests is so great that they represent a larger threat than hornets. Reducing some of the inground wasps nests can make a huge impact.

Protecting Beehives

For beekeepers, keeping strong colonies is a first step. Monitor hive entrances – especially during late Summer. If you notice a wasp problem – use an entrance reducer to close up the hive entrance to make it easier for the bees to protect themselves.

Make or buy some wasp traps to reduce the wasps and hornet population in your area. For ground wasps or hornets inside cavities – I have had success with a product like Sevin dust. But, be careful Sevin Dust is fatal to bees as well.

Keep in mind that insects like “bald-faced hornets” that are really large wasps, perform an important service in pest control.

FAQs

What’s the difference between wasps and hornets, and why does it matter for beekeepers?

Wasps and hornets belong to the same insect order but have distinct physical characteristics and behaviors. Understanding these differences is crucial for beekeepers to effectively manage and protect their hives against potential threats posed by these predatory insects.

How do wasps and hornets prey on honey bee colonies?

Wasps and hornets target honey bee colonies for adult bees, honey, pollen, and brood.

What are some signs that a honey bee colony is under attack by wasps or hornets?

Signs of wasp or hornet predation on honey bee colonies may include increased aggression among worker bees, noticeable declines in bee populations, and the presence of predatory insects near hive entrances.

Final Thoughts

In comparing these predatory insects: wasps vs hornets, remember they both have an important role to play. If you do decide that you need to reduce their population in your yard, do so in a manner that is least likely to have a negative effect on non-target insects.

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