The Hornet – gentle giant or evil monster?

The Hornet – gentle giant or evil monster?

A lot of people reported big hornets in their garden in the summer of 2018. The one above was found dead in greenhouse in Hungerford. Our son caught the huge hornet below in our conservatory and it sparked a big debate about when is a hornet a ‘bad guy’. 

I am ashamed to say that we killed this formidable specimen in a fit of panic before finding out from local experts she was probably a European queen hornet (Vespa Crabro) out collecting materials for her nest.

“European hornets are frighteningly large,” explains nature writer Nicola Chester. “But they are known as gentle giants as they are more docile than our wasps and entirely belong here! Their diet consists mostly of flies, so they are great pest controllers. They do sometimes eat bees as well but hornets and bees are two native species who have evolved together in balance for thousands of years.”

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European hornet queens can measure up to 35mm long and have a loud buzz so people find them frightening and often kill them. In reality they are not aggressive and many believe they are an important part of our eco system. According to insectstings.co.uk they usually only sting – like most bees and wasps – if you are blocking a flight path, moving rapidly or get too close to their nest.

Hornets carry the same venom as wasps – but simply more of it hence the bigger sting. Their venom is designed to kill smaller insect prey, unlike the more powerful bee venom which is designed to kill vertebrates trying to steal their honey. This gentle giant website is dedicated to educating the public who are in danger of killing the hornet to extinction in parts of Central Europe.

The reality in nature is that there is no black and white in terms of good guys and bad guys when owls eat baby blackbirds, woodpeckers eat baby blue tits and badgers eat hedgehogs. Even wasps are useful for controlling aphids in the garden at certain times of the year but they too can decimate a bee colony in late summer, according to Jan Doyle of Newbury & District Beekeepers Association.

The Asian Hornet

But hornets have an especially bad name thanks to the press about Asian hornets which are a real danger to our native bees because they apparently follow a trail laid down by a drone to hives and kill many bees they find there to feed to their larvae. 

Asian hornets, however, are actually still very rare over here and you would probably know if they have been sighted in your area as they are a notifiable species.

Image right: Asian hornet from nonnativespecies.org

Any suspected sightings should be reported to the Non Native Species Secretariat. But they need a positive ID as they get thousands of reports each week so try to capture or photograph for proof. There is also an Asian Hornet Watch app now available for android and apple phones.

“The Asian hornet is quite dark with velvety chocolate brown colouring,” explains Jan Doyle. “The fourth segment of its abdomen and its face is yellow/orange. It is smaller and slighter than the European hornet and the big difference is that it has yellow legs.”

And if you do have Asian hornets on your property, DEFRA will pay for them to be destroyed.

However all is not black and white even when it comes to Asian hornets. Here is an interesting article by Chris Luck, an English beekeeper in France, where Asian hornets were believed to have been introduced from China in 2004 in a container of pottery passing through the port of Bordeaux. Chris thinks the threat of the Asian hornet is somewhat over-stated as they have nested near his hives with little damage to his bees and their spread over France during the last ten years hasn’t produced the catastrophic colony losses that some initially feared.

Thanks to Belinda from Hungerford Allotments for top photo

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4 Responses

  1. Just came back from a campsite in the midlands and watched a hornet scraping wood from a willow branch with smaller common wasps also milling about. She grabbed one and munched it in seconds then went back to work. She was there every day for the 3 days we were there, fascinating to watch.

  2. Under “blocking the path or rapid movement” anything can go. If you’re out camping and one flies into your tent, while you’re away and goes into your sleeping bag, you’ll get stinged multiple times and if you are sensitive to their venom you’ll probably die before the ambulance comes. Worse even if you have a campervan and the queen hornet thinks it is a suitable place to make a nest, or if they discover you’ve got honey or something sweet, then they’ll come in their dozens, an army a swarm of those deadly animals, they’ll do anything for honey.

  3. I’ve had a nest of European hornets in the woods behind the garage all Summer. To give credence to the fact they are so docile, I was walking by the tree they were nesting in all Summer, not to mention mowing the path next to their tree, and I never even knew the nest was there until about 3 weeks ago, when I heard buzzing when I walked by, and noticed the hornets flying in and out. Evidently they never considered me a threat! Since then, I’ve been watching the nest almost daily, and refer to them as my pet hornets. 🙂

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