Wasps Vs Hornets: 6 Key Differences

In this article, I will look at the main differences between wasps vs hornets, and how to identify each of them.

It’s easy to confuse wasps and hornets with each other based on their general appearance, and indeed, the two are very similar.

Both of them belong to the same insect family, predate on smaller insects, and are commonly feared for their painful stings.

However, while all hornets are wasps, not all wasps count as hornets.

They differ from other species of wasps in several ways, including their appearance and behavior and nesting habits.

So, if you’re curious about the difference between hornet species and other wasps, let’s dive into it right away.

Wasps Vs Hornets
Fine-Backed Red Paper Wasp

What Are Wasps?

Mostly classified in the Vespidae family, wasps are a group of narrow-waisted, flying, and stinging insects.

Some species of wasps belong to other families, but they’re all grouped under the suborder.

Apocrita of the order Hymenoptera, the same suborder same as all types of bees and ants.

To put it simply, any insect belonging to the suborder Apocrita that can’t be classified as a bee or an ant is a wasp.

There are more than 100,000 species of wasps spread across the world. You’re likely familiar with some of them already, especially the ones with bright colors.

Paper wasps are among the most common wasps that you’d find in the US, identifiable by their black and yellow stripes.

Yellow jackets are a very common type too, and easily one of the most feared wasps out there. Other common wasp species include spider wasps and mud daubers.

European Hornet

What Are Hornets?

Hornets are a subspecies of wasps, classified under the Vespidae like most of them.

These social insects typically live in colonies, building themselves hives out of wood pulp.

Though mostly native to Eurasia, hornets can be found in North America and Africa too.

Though hornets are very common, they account for only a small fraction of wasp species globally.

Around 20 species of hornets have been identified so far, among which the giant hornet and bald-faced hornets and European hornets deserve special mention.

Hornets can also be considered to be gardener’s friends. Preying on a variety of common garden pests, they help with natural pest control.

However, they might potentially pose a danger to humans depending on the location of their nest.

Executioner Wasp Vs Tarantula Hawk
Wasp

Differences Between Wasps vs. Hornets

Now that you have a better understanding of wasps and hornets let’s compare the two and check out the key differences.

For the sake of convenience, I’ll be referring to the other species of wasps as simply wasps.

Appearance

This is the most important difference between hornets and wasps as far as identification is concerned.

Wasps are commonly identified by their slender bodies and narrow waists.

Some species have such thin waists that it’s a wonder that they can support the weight of the abdomen.

Hornets, on the contrary, are thicker and rounder near the abdomen and midsection. It’s hard to mix up the waist of a wasp with that of a hornet.

While most wasps range between 0.25 inch to 1 inch in length, hornets are much larger. The Asian giant hornet, for instance, can reach a length of 2 inches.

Though hornets carry bright colors like yellow and orange too, wasps are typically brighter.

Bald Faced Hornet

Ability To Sting

Both wasps and hornets are stinging insects. Unlike bees, they don’t die after stinging and can sting multiple times.

As the stinger is a female reproductive organ (the ovipositor, to be precise), only female stinging wasps and hornets have it.

The venomousness varies a lot from one species to another, but hornet stings are generally more painful due to the high acetylcholine content.

Hornets use neurotoxins to paralyze or kill their prey.

Although they aren’t potent enough to kill humans, they can be fatal in rare cases of intense allergic reactions.

Getting attacked by a swarm of angry hornets can be deadly too.

Now, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fear wasp stings. They’re feared for a reason. Some wasp species, such as the yellow jacket wasps, can be quite dangerous in this regard.

What They Eat

Moving on, let’s compare their dietary needs and preferences. Both wasps and hornets are omnivorous, and some species rely entirely on a carnivorous diet for the early part of their life.

The diet can vary significantly from one type of wasp to another.

While some species of wasps sustain themselves entirely on nectar, predatory wasps are there too. Some wasp species might also be scavengers.

Adult hornets, on the other hand, mostly stick to plant matter to fulfill their dietary requirements.

They tend to show a preference towards sweet substances, like rotten fruits, plant sap, nectar, and even processed sugary foods and drinks.

Many species of wasps and hornets are parasitoid, i.e., they feed and grow on the bodies of other insects as larvae.

The adults hunt these insects, usually paralyzing them with a neurotoxin. They drag the prey into the nest and lay eggs in their bodies.

When the eggs hatch, the newborn wasp/hornet larvae feed on the prey till they are ready to pupate, eventually killing them.

This is how adult wasps and hornets help with pest control, even if they rely on a completely plant-based diet themselves.

Pleasant Hornet Moth

Life Cycle

There isn’t much difference in the life cycle of social wasps and hornets.

The queens mate in autumn and survive the winter by hibernating in the bark of trees, soil, or rotten wood. The males, however, die soon after mating.

The worker wasps/hornets gradually die off during the winter. There’s a common misconception that they don’t survive due to the low temperatures.

However, it’s the scarcity of food that kills them. Of the entire colony, only the queen survives to see the spring.

The queen comes out of hibernation in spring and lays its eggs somewhere suitable.

The parasitoid wasps lay them in the body of a paralyzed prey, as I explained earlier.

It takes five to eight days for the eggs to hatch.

Over the next two weeks or so, the larvae grow and develop through five molting stages.

This is followed by pupation, which lasts for another 13 to 15 days. At the end of this stage, fully developed wasps/hornets emerge.

The new wasps start taking care of the queen again, and the latter no longer has to forage for food.

Eventually, new queens and drones are born too, and the workers start tending to them, ignoring the old queen. At this point, the old queen leaves the nest and dies.

For solitary wasps, however, the life cycle is much shorter. They’re active as adults for only a few weeks – most of their lifespan is spent as eggs, larvae, or pupae.

Wasp Nest

Behavior

Both these species are known to aggressively attack and sting humans, which is why they’re so feared.

However, wasps are more aggressive in general. This is possibly due to their affinity to human foods – they end up close to people and attack if they feel provoked.

Hornets are relatively more placid and keep to themselves, but they can be much more aggressive than wasps when threatened.

There’s a reason why “stirring up a hornet’s nest” is used as a figure of speech, after all.

Hornets won’t attack you unless you disturb their nest and pose a threat, but if you do, you might suffer a potentially deadly attack.

Social vs. Solitary

Now, this is a major difference between the two. Wasps can be both social or solitary, depending on the species.

Though they are commonly known to live in hives, there are only 700 social wasp species in the world.

Compared to the total number of wasp species, that’s a rather meager number.

Hornets, however, are social insects. They build their nests using a paper-like substance created from wood fibers.

They make it by chewing on wood and using their saliva to turn it into pulp. Paper wasp nests are similar too, which is how these wasps get their name.

Hornets are found in underground nests, nests built among tree branches or shrubbery, and even wall voids.

The same goes for wasps, but solitary wasps naturally need much smaller nests than hornets.

European Hornet

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is worse, a wasp sting or hornet?

Both wasps and hornets are stinging insects that can sting multiple times, as they don’t die after stinging.
Only female wasps and hornets have stingers as the stingers are actually the female reproductive organ for depositing their eggs.
Hornet stings are generally more painful due to the high acetylcholine content.
Hornets use neurotoxins to paralyze or kill their prey, which can be fatal in rare cases of intense allergic reactions.
Yellow jacket wasps can also be dangerous due to their stings.

Does a hornet leave a stinger?

No, a hornet does not leave a stinger in the skin when it stings.
Hornets have smooth stingers, unlike bees. They can sting multiple times without their stinger becoming stuck in the skin.
The venom from a hornet sting can be very potent. It can cause a lot more pain and swelling than a bee sting.
If you are allergic to insect stings or if you were stung multiple times, it is important to get a doctor to see you immediately.
As I mentioned earlier, there are neurotoxins in a hornet’s sting that can cause intense reactions.

How many times can a wasp sting?

A wasp can sting multiple times as it does not lose its stinger after stinging like a bee.
Unlike bees, wasp stingers are smooth and can easily penetrate the skin.
A wasp sting causes pain, swelling, and sometimes allergic reactions as well.
Unlike bees, wasps are more aggressive and tend to sting repeatedly, especially when they feel threatened, or their nests are disturbed.
Don’t get too close to wasps, and take precautions to prevent stings, such as wearing protective clothing and using insect repellent.

What happens if you get bitten by a hornet?

The area around the sting may have pain, redness, swelling, and itching.
Some people might experience an allergic reaction, which can cause symptoms such as difficulty in breathing, throat swelling, and heart palpitations.
In severe cases, you might experience anaphylaxis. This is a life-threatening allergic reaction that requires immediate medical attention.
To treat a hornet sting, wash the area with soap and water, and apply a cold compress. If you experience any of the signs of an allergic reaction, seek medical attention right away.

Wrapping up

Now that you know the key differences between hornets and other species of wasps, you should note that true hornets and other wasps can be extremely similar in some cases.

However, you may rest assured about one thing – neither is particularly dangerous unless provoked.

All wasps and hornets are beneficial insects – even the ones that don’t kill hunt pests help with pollination.

So, unless you have a hornet nest dangerously close to people, consider leaving it be.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this article insightful.

Reader Emails

Wasps and hornets may be from the same family, but their differences make them uniquely perceived from each other.

Over the years, we have had several emails trying to understand the differences and similarities between the two.

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Authors

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  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

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