Wednesday, May 12, 2010

European Hornet

 This incredibly aggressive wasp is a European Hornet (Vespa crabro), even it's Latin name suggests a crabby beast. Like their common name suggests they originally came from Europe. They were first found in New York in the late 1800's and can now be found throughout the Eastern United States. Sometimes they are referred to as "giant hornets", and with an overall length of 1 1/4 inches it is easy to see how they earned that name. These are very thick bodied wasps with an orange banded abdomen. The head, thorax and parts of the abdomen are reddish-brown. Directly behind the eyes their is a swollen area that is very noticeable.

(Internet Image)

The first picture was taken in Townsend, TN near the smoky mountains at a cabin we rented. We were getting ready to leave and explore the area, when I discovered this large wasp attacking and eating this Robinson's Cicada. I was able to get within inches of it and take photos without it seeming to disturb the wasp in the slightest. I looked up information about this species and discovered that cicadas are often the food of choice for this wasps offspring. The adults will attack and kill large insects, like the cicada and take bits of it back to the hive for the larvae to feed on. The adults are fond of sap flows, nectar and a sugary substance secreted by the larvae. 

You will typically find them in timbered areas. In the spring bred queens become active and will seek areas to build a nest. This may be hollow trees, old honey bee hives, or even in human structures. They will use bits of chewed up wood to form a pulp in which to form their hive. The bred queen will form cells within the hive and lay her eggs. These eggs hatch and she will care for them on her own. Once these new larvae have matured they will take over the care of any future larvae and the expansion of the hive, as well as caring for and protecting their queen. The queen's only job from this point on will be to lay eggs. By mid-summer there may be 500 individual hornets within the hive. A very large hive might contain up to 1,000 wasps. Later in the summer (August) the queen will lay eggs that develop into drones (males) and these drones begin seeking fertile females with which to mate. After mating, the drones die, as does the queen. The newly bred queens will overwinter in secluded areas under leaf litter, or the bark of trees. the following spring the cycle begins again. All the former members of the hive will have perished. It is these large hornets nests that we often find  in trees or even in piles of hay in barns. Once the first freeze has hit, these wasps die off and the hive is safe to collect. This is usually sometime in November or December. 

Occasionally you will see these wasps at porch lights. Presumably they are there seeking insects to feed the larvae.


  1. I don't know about any one else, but if you get these boogers in your house structure or garage or barn, you have got problems. Noise of any kind especially when doing construction work will get them European Boogers pissed and they will attack and sting you. So even if there cute, they can inflict a nasty sting and be a big problem. There nest is hard to find to. In fact sometimes the only way to find it is to tear your house apart.

  2. I have a large log home in the Smokies E. TN in a wooded forrest. We have wood boring bees eating the house, mega amounts of wasps, etc. and I have seen these huge almost hummingbird size yellow/brown hornets that will eat any bug or human. I have read that they are Asian Giant Hornets and European Hornets. Aggressive and I am sure they would bite the stew out of you and are highly venomous. REALLY SCAREY BUGS.

  3. I am probably looking for trouble, but as a professional biologist/naturalist for 16 years, I think I can, with some bit of credibility, state that I must respectfully disagree with your statement that Vespa crabro is "incredibly aggressive". On the contrary.. it is only aggressive IF- and ONLY if... you deliberately attack the nest. I have approached active nests, and individuals, on numerous occassions. NEVER have I been stung by a European Hornet. NEVER. They are remarkably tolerant- IF you know how to behave around them!

    Now-- the Bald Faced "Hornet" (which isn't actually a "hornet" at all, but a wasp- and yes, there is a difference-- these guys are your hot-headed wasps! They don't need much of an excuse to attack, and they will chase you for quite a ways...even waiting for you to come "out of hiding" so they can continue the attack.

    Second to the Bald-Faced in aggression is the Yellow-Jacket, which usually nests in the ground or rotten logs/stumps.

    The V. crabro ranks waaaaay down on the totem pole when it comes to aggression. Please don't paint these beautiful, highly BENEFICIAL INSECTS so poorly. They will pick your veggie garden clean of those nasty worms that can decimate your crop! (I had 5 species of wasps/bees in my yard, used no pesticides whatsoever, and had flawless veggies for 10 years!)

    1. I don't consider your comment "looking for trouble". I guess I should have made my post more clear. Instead of stating that they were incredibly aggressive and implying that this was towards humans I should have clearly stated that their aggression was towards insect prey. I too have never experienced aggressive behavior from them. I also have never had issue with their cousins the paper wasps.I too am not an advocate for pesticides and let bugs do all the work. I am married to a farmer and I have convinced him to stop using pesticides and we've been pesticide free for over 16 years. I absolutely love insects of all kinds and cannot bear to kill any of them. I even have bird houses out that I let the paper wasps have, much to my husbands annoyance...LOL. I thank you for setting the record straight and calling me on the carpet for some not so accurate statements.