September 2011 - The European Hornet


European Hornet Bawburgh

In August we found we had a European hornetís nest in our roof space. We have experienced several wasps' nests in the past but this was our first experience of hornets. Interestingly their behaviour seemed very different to wasps, so I thought I would find out more about them.

The European hornet looks like a large wasp, queens measuring I to 2 inches (2.5 to 5.0 cm) long, workers and males being smaller. The queens are the sole survivors of the nests of the previous year, and they hibernate in rotten hollow trees, sheds/outbuildings etc. They emerge in the spring and hunt for suitable locations to build their nests, chewing wood (timbers in our case) to build horizontal  paper-like layers of cells to Iay her eggs and raise her young. Eventually a nest will grow to contain hundreds of individuals, in contrast to a waspís nest which commonly contains several thousand.

European hornets are not aggressive except when defending their nest and their sting is no worse than a wasps despite their size. The myths surrounding hornets being aggressive and dangerous do not apply to the European hornet and apply to those species found elsewhere in the world e.g. Asian hornet.  Primarily the sting is only used to immobilize insect prey, which is then chewed up and fed to their larvae. They're called gardenersí friends as they are predatory to insect pests, such as caterpillars and aphids, and indeed it has been suggested that you leave the nests alone to benefit the average farm or garden. However, it must also be mentioned that the European hornet has been known to eradicate honeybee hives, resulting in fewer honeybees for pollination.

The European hornet, as we found out, is very attracted to lights at night. It was a battle to keep them out of the house at night, and once one got in, it would revolve round the lights, hitting them with gusto. it was quite frightening if you were between the hornet and the light! Unlike wasps they are not attracted to human food or waste, but orchard fruit, such as plums and apples, is definitely on the menu.

Overall, there has been a decline in the European hornet population, primarily due to the destruction of their nests.  In Germany they actually have legal protection.  In the UK they have no such protection and you are at liberty to get the pest controller in to do his work.

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