European hornets and cicada killers are two impressive insect species often seen during the warmer months, but many people find it difficult to distinguish between them. Knowing the differences between these two fascinating creatures can help reduce unnecessary fear and misunderstanding.
The European hornet is an invasive species in the US, while the cicada killer is a native wasp. One key distinction between these insects is their nesting behavior, with European hornets constructing paper nests in aerial locations and cicada killers choosing to nest in the ground. Additionally, cicada killers are solitary, with each female digging her own nest, whereas European hornets live socially in colonies.
In appearance, both European hornets and cicada killers have black and yellow markings, but cicada killers have large rust-colored eyes and orangish-red wings and legs. By contrast, European hornets have distinct patterns on the abdomen and predominantly yellow-colored legs. Comparing their sizes, cicada killer wasps can measure up to 1.5 inches in length, while European hornets are generally smaller.
European Hornet vs Cicada Killer: Identification
The European hornet and cicada killer are two distinct species of large wasps. European hornets have a black-and-white-striped face with an abdomen featuring yellow stripes. They are the only true hornet species found in North America, nesting in hollow logs, trees, and outbuildings1.
Cicada killers, on the other hand, have a black abdomen with yellow markings on the thorax, as well as large rust-colored eyes, orangish-red wings, and legs2. They can be as large as 1.5 inches and are a native wasp species. The cicada killer’s abdomen is mostly black but has typically three yellowish stripes3.
- Black-and-white-striped face
- Yellow-striped abdomen
- Black abdomen with yellow markings on thorax
- Rust-colored eyes, orangish-red wings and legs
- Three yellowish stripes on abdomen
Another species commonly confused with these two is the murder hornet. However, it is currently not found in North America4.
European hornets are found in various parts of North America, while cicada killers are distributed across the United States within the geographical range of cicadas12. Each female cicada killer digs its own burrow in bare or open soil3.
|Feature||European Hornet||Cicada Killer|
|Face||Black-and-white-striped||Black with rust-colored eyes|
|Abdomen||Yellow-striped||Black with three yellowish stripes|
|Distribution||Various parts of North America||United States within the range of cicadas|
Behavior and Lifecycle
Mating and Reproduction
European hornets and cicada killer wasps have different mating and reproductive behaviors. European hornets (Vespa crabro) are social insects with a colony structure consisting of a queen, workers, and drones. The queen mates with drones and lays eggs throughout the spring and summer, producing worker bees and new queens.
Cicada killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus), on the other hand, are solitary insects. Males emerge from the ground first, followed by females. After mating, the female digs a burrow in bare soil and lays eggs on paralyzed cicadas.
- European hornets: About 4-6 weeks
- Cicada killer wasps: About 3-4 weeks
Both European hornets and cicada killer wasps have specific feeding habits. European hornets are predators that hunt a variety of insects, including bees, flies, and beetles. They also feed on tree sap and overly ripe fruit. In contrast, cicada killers predominantly prey on cicadas. The female stings the cicada, paralyzes it, and transports it to the burrow where it lays its eggs. The hatched larva feeds on the paralyzed cicada.
Here is a comparison table:
|European Hornets||Cicada Killer Wasps|
|Mating||Social, in colonies||Solitary|
|Prey||Bees, flies, beetles||Cicadas|
In summary, European hornets and cicada killer wasps differ significantly in their behavior and lifecycle. European hornets have a social, colony-based structure, while cicada killers are solitary insects. Their feeding habits also differ, with European hornets consuming a variety of insects and cicada killers focusing primarily on cicadas.
Stings and Impact on Humans
Pain and Reactions
The stings of both the European hornet and the Eastern cicada killer can cause pain and reactions in humans. The European hornet’s sting is more painful due to its larger size and venom amount. Eastern cicada killer stings can be painful but are rarely experienced by humans, as they are not aggressive and only sting when handled or threatened.
- European hornet: High
- Eastern cicada killer: Moderate
Risk of stinging humans:
- European hornet: Moderate
- Eastern cicada killer: Low
Myths and Misconceptions
Eastern cicada killers are sometimes confused with the much-hyped murder hornets due to their size and appearance. However, they are two different species, and cicada killers pose very little threat to humans. Murder hornets, on the other hand, can pose a threat to humans, although the risk is relatively low.
|Species||Size||Color||Aggressiveness to Humans|
|Eastern Cicada Killer||1-1.5 inches||Black with yellow stripes||Low|
|Murder Hornet||1.5-2 inches||Red and orange||Moderate|
- Eastern cicada killers are often mistaken for murder hornets.
- Cicada killers have lower aggressiveness to humans than murder hornets.
- Both stings can cause pain and reactions in humans, but the risk of being stung by an Eastern cicada killer is relatively low.
Ecological Impact of Invasive Species
The Asian Giant Hornet as a Threat
The Asian giant hornet, native to Asia, is an invasive species with devastating effects on honeybee populations. In areas where it has become established, such as Japan, it is responsible for killing about 50 people a year and proves to be harmful to agriculture. The hornets can prey on honeybees by decapitating them and eating their thoraxes, thus wiping out entire hives in hours.
In North America, entomologists have spotted these hornets specifically in Washington State, raising concerns about the possible impact on the Pacific Northwest’s honeybee populations.
- Honeybee population loss
- Agricultural impact
- Human health risk
To protect the honeybees and agriculture, it is crucial to develop and employ management strategies for combating the spread of Asian giant hornets.
Monitoring: Setting up traps and monitoring devices facilitates early detection of the hornets, helping to prevent them from establishing a foothold in new areas.
Eradication: In case of an infestation, specialists can use targeted approaches to locate and destroy nests to minimize further spread.
Public awareness: Raising awareness among the general public, particularly in high-risk areas, helps people understand the risk and participate in reporting sightings.
Comparison table: European hornet vs Cicada killer
|Feature||European hornet||Cicada killer|
|Size||18-28 mm||25-40 mm|
|Prey||Bees, wasps, cicadas, etc.||Cicadas exclusively|
|Impact on agriculture||Can damage plants and fruits||Limited impact|
In summary, Asian giant hornets pose a significant threat to honeybees and have serious consequences for agriculture. Effective management strategies such as monitoring, eradication, and public awareness play a vital role in controlling the spread of these invasive species.
Similar Species and Declining Populations
Types of Cicada Killers
There are several species of cicada killers, such as the Pacific Cicada Killer (Sphecius convallis), Western Cicada Killer (Sphecius grandis), and Eastern Cicada Killer (Sphecius speciosus). They are part of the digger wasp family and are often confused with other stinging insects like the giant Asian hornet, paper wasps, and sand wasps.
As an example of their similarities, let’s take a look at Sphecius speciosus and the European hornet (Vespa crabro):
|Feature||Sphecius speciosus (Eastern Cicada Killer)||Vespa crabro (European Hornet)|
|Size||1.5 – 2 inches||1 – 1.4 inches|
|Color||Black and yellow-orange abdomen||Black, red, and yellow stripes|
While they have some similar features, they can be distinguished by their unique characteristics.
Cicada killer characteristics:
- Rarely sting humans
- Hunt and paralyze cicadas to feed larvae
European hornet characteristics:
- Social insects
- More likely to sting if disturbed
- Create nests and feed on various insects
Populations of some stinging insects have steadily declined due to various factors, with some experiencing declines of 30 to 40 percent. This affects not only hornets and wasps, but also crucial pollinators like bees and butterflies. Conservation efforts to protect their habitats and food sources are essential to preserve dwindling populations.
Organizations such as Penn State are working to research and implement conservation strategies to help maintain stable populations of these insects and their ecosystems. Identifying and understanding the differences among various species of stinging insects can aid in these efforts and lead to more effective action plans.
Natural and Man-Made Habitats
Burrows and Soil Types
Cicada killer wasps and European hornets have distinct preferences in their burrow construction and soil types.
Cicada killer wasps:
- Create solitary burrows in bare/open soil
- Females dig individual burrows for egg-laying.
- Build large paper nest colonies in hollow trees and old barns
- Colonies may contain 200-400 workers and a queen.
|Species||Burrow Type||Soil Preference|
|Cicada killer||Solitary||Bare/open soil|
|European hornets||Colony||Hollow trees/barns|
Urban and Agricultural Settings
Both species have different interactions with urban and agricultural environments.
Cicada killer wasps:
- Likely to be found in gardens and parks.
- Less impact on human activities.
- Found in rural environments, banging on windows at night due to attraction to light.
- May cause concern if nests are built near human dwellings.
Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.
Letter 1 – European Hornets: Reusing Nest????? or Feeding on Sap?
What kind of bee is this.
For the past couple of years, I have see this type of bee in the same tree. The tree is near my kids playground and I have never seen any type of bee this large. I live in the US, North Carolina. Is there a way to control these bees if not get rid of them. I was assuming they may have been wood bees or mason bees but the pics don’t look like it from what I have searched for on the web. They almost look like the wood wasp that you have on your web site. There are also a lot of flies around the bees. Thanks
These are European Hornets, Vespa crabro, and introduced species from Europe that nests in hollow trees. What is fascinating about your letter is that you indicate that they are nesting in the same location each year. According to BugGuide, they do not reuse the nest. Perhaps the housing crisis that is affecting the nation has filtered down to the insect world. Your photo appears to document the European Hornets feeding from tree sap, in which case there is not a nest present. If a nest is present, there is a risk of a stinging incident with the children since social wasps are quite protective of their nests. If they are just feeding from the sap, the European Hornets will not bother the children.
Letter 2 – European Hornets strip lilac of bark
Large Flying Wasp like
Location: Central NJ
September 12, 2011 11:24 am
These things are swarming all over my lilac tree and seem to be killing it. Are they a stinging insect or something else? They are over an inch long and 1/4 inch in diameter.
Signature: Kathy – NJ
introduced european hornets
Thank you so much. I know the picture wasn’t great but I was scared to death to get too close since I am allergic to bees and wasps. I see they do sting. Don’t suppose you could let me know how I can save my lilac and send them away?
Many Thanks for your speedy reply
They are gathering bark to make their paper nest. The hive should die out with the onset of winter. We don’t really offer extermination advice.
Letter 3 – Giant Hornet
I found this huge wasp-like thing on my screened in porch (the screen is torn). I took live photos with a crayon for reference, but could not get it very close. It died by the next day. What on Earth is this and why is it so big? I have never seen one this big! Thanks for your help!
The Giant Hornet, Vespa crabro germana, lives up to its name. I has to be big to be called the Giant Hornet. If you think this is big, you should see a Tarantula Hawk.
Letter 4 – Giant Hornet
Do you know what kind of wasp or hornet this is? I live in Maryland and the photo with the ruler isn’t too accurate. I made a better measurement and it was 1.75 inches and the second one I got was just about 2 inches long. I have never seen these where I live up until this spring. I have seen a total of 3 of them but cannot find a nest or anything directing me to where they may be coming from. Please help. Are they aggressive? Thank you.
The Giant Hornet, Vespa crabro germana, was introduced to America from Europe in the 19th Century. The paper nest is usually hidden in a hollow tree or in a building. They are not aggressive, but will defend their nest. According to the Audubon Guide: “It defends its nest from intruders, but otherwise avoids confrontations when possible.”
Letter 5 – Giant Hornet
What kind of bee is this??
My husband was mowing the grass the other day and several of these bees came out of a tree and stung him. I can’t figure out what kind of bee this might be? Its very red almost and exceptionally large. Their bodies are longer than a quarter. For now, we are calling them “School Bus Bees” because of their size. We wonder if we should not do something about them because their nest seems to be getting much larger. Help! Thanks,
The Giant Hornet or European Hornet, Vespa crabro, was introduced to the eastern part of North America from Europe. Like all social wasps, they will defend their nest. They must have felt threatened by the lawn mower.
Letter 6 – Giant Hornet
Sun, May 3, 2009 at 6:15 AM
Thanks to your wonderful site and also to Jeff & Helen West of Winchester, VA (9/24/06), this beauty was easily identified as a Giant Hornet, Vespa crabro germana. Maybe these photos will help the next person looking to identify a specimen.
It flew in the house last night, upset a guest, but didn’t make it to morning…found in this condition on the floor.
Many thanks Daniel,
Great Smoky Mountains, TN
Thanks for sending us your photos of the Giant Hornet or European Hornet. We recently posted a photo of a living specimen, and the inclusion of the ruler for scale should be quite helpful to our readership.