Species of the month

Species of the Month: Hornets - European and Asian

Hornet © Margaret Holland

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Our Species of the Month species surveys are an important way you can help us.  Records are sent to DERC (Dorset Environmental Records Centre) who collate this information to build up a picture of the of the state of Dorset's wildlife. So please help us help wildlife by filling in the form below. Thank you!

Species of the Month: Hornets - Know your European and Asian ones

Scientific Name:  European Hornet – Vespa crabo;    Asian Hornet - Vespa velutina 

Identification

Both the native European hornet and alien Asian hornet are large ‘wasp-like’ insects.  Although they do look similar, they can be separated by looking at their colour and size.   Both are roughly twice the size of an average wasp! Asian hornets have a black abdomen, with the fourth segment as orange / yellow. European Hornets have a predominately yellow abdomen. Another difference is that European Hornets remain active at night, whereas the Asian Hornets only fly during the day.  

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE! 

Native European Hornet 

Non-Native Asian Hornet 

Colouring 

A predominantly yellow abdomen with ‘toffee’ brown markings. 

Abdomen is mainly charcoal brown/black with only a small amount of yellow/orange colouration towards the ‘back-end‘. (See image below) 

 

 Queen Hornet Size 

35mm (larger than Asian) 

Up to 30mm (smaller than Native) 

Legs might be difficult to see! 

Dark in colour 

Black with bright yellow tips 

 

Hornet © Margaret Holland

Hornet © Margaret Holland

Asian Hornet © Gilles San Martin

Asian Hornet © Gilles San Martin

Diet

The Asian hornet is a threat to honeybees and other pollinating insects.  They are specialist predators and ambush worker bees as they return to or leave the hive, chopping them up and feeding the thorax to their young. 

European hornets also catch invertebrates to feed their larvae but, as they are part of our native wildlife, do not pose a significant threat to any one group of insects. 

Adults of both species feed mainly on high energy sugars such as nectar and tree sap.  Workers also consume the sugary liquid produced by larvae in the colony. 

Behaviour

Hornets are highly social insects, living in organised colonies comprising of a single queen and many workers. 

In spring the queens emerge from hibernation and build an intricate nest of tessellating hexagon cells, using a mixture of chewed wood and salvia! 

Nests of European hornets are usually built in tree cavities, barns or sheds, while the Asian hornet typically builds its nest in tree branches amongst foliage. 

The queen lays a single egg in each cell which develop into sterile workers who tend to the other larvae. By the end of the summer, new males and queens develop and leave the nest to mate.  The old queen and all the males die and only the new queens hibernate. 

Did you know?

  • European hornets have an unmerited, fearsome reputation, possibly because they superficially look like big wasps!  Infact, they are very ‘chilled’ and not aggressive unless provoked. Persecution has led to near extinction in some areas of central Europe and they are a protected species in Germany. 
  • Neither the European nor Asian hornets pose a risk to human health.  The risk is comparable to that of bee; neither species sting unless they feel threatened. 
  • As the name suggests, Asian Hornets originally came from China.  In 2004 they arrived in Europe, possibly in a cargo shipment of terracotta bonsai pots, and are widespread in France, Portugal, Spain and the Channel Islands.  Accidental routes into the UK have been via travellers in bags and camping gear. 
  • The Asian hornets living in Europe are probably from temperate regions of China, so are used to cold winters.  It may, however, be colder winter temperatures which are limiting the northern spread of Asian hornets in the UK. 

Where can they be found?

The European hornet is common across the south of England, but less so elsewhere.  It is a real treat if you see them visiting your garden. 

Asian hornets were first recorded in the UK (Devon) in 2016.  In October 2019, two Asian hornet nests were identified and destroyed in Christchurch.  So please keep your eyes peeled and report any sightings (please see ‘Tips’ below)! 

Wildlife gardening tips

  • It is very important to know the difference between our native European hornet and the invasive Asian hornet!  
  • Native European hornets are important pollinators and useful pest controllers.  As such they are a welcome visitor to parks and gardens.  
  • Any sightings of the Asian hornet should be reported, so the nest can be professionally destroyed to prevent further spread. 
  • If you think you may have spotted an Asian hornet either email alertnonnative@ceh.ac.uk with location details and a photo if possible or use the online form.  Further information is available on the Government website.  

Species of the Month sightings form

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Blue tit © Stewart Canham