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Hornet vs Wasp: How to Identify and Tell the Difference


Hornets and wasps are often a source of fear and concern for people. With their sharp stingers and buzzing wings, it’s understandable why many people avoid contact with these insects. But have you ever wondered what separates hornets from wasps, and how they differ in terms of behavior, diet, and physical attributes?

Thanks to my degree in biology, I’ve always been incredibly fascinated by hornets and wasps and this article shares everything you need to know about the differences between the two, as well as their similarities.

Hornets are a specific subset of wasps, known for their wider heads and more rounded abdomens. They also tend to be larger in size, with some species reaching up to 5.5 centimeters in length.

Comparatively, wasps, such as paper wasps and yellow jackets, are generally smaller and often come in brighter colors. While size may be the main focus of the hornet versus wasp discussion, understanding the life cycles and behavior of these insects will provide a clearer picture of their roles within nature.

In the North America, the most common hornet is the European hornet, which was introduced into New York in 1840. This species might resemble a large yellowjacket and can be found nesting in the ground or in hollow trees.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about hornet vs wasp. I’ll go over their physical differences, behavioral differences, what their diet consists of, and how they impact the environment.

You’ll also learn exactly how to deal with hornet stings vs wasp stings and what to do if there’s an infestation in your home.

Understanding Hornets and Wasps

When it comes to stinging insects, hornets and wasps are often mistaken for each other. While they do share some similarities, they are distinct species that have unique characteristics and behaviors.

What are Hornets?

Hornets are a type of social wasp that are typically larger than their counterparts. They belong to the Vespidae family and are known for their distinct physique, aggressive behavior, and painful stings. Hornets are generally more robust than other wasps, with a thicker thorax and a wider head. Their coloration can vary from species to species, but most have a black and yellow striped pattern.

One of the most notable features of hornets is their aggressive nature. They are highly territorial and will defend their nests vigorously if they feel threatened. Hornets can sting multiple times, and their venom is more potent than that of other wasps, which can make their stings more painful and dangerous.

Despite their intimidating reputation, hornets play an essential role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem and help regulate pest populations. They are known to prey on a variety of insects, including flies, caterpillars, and even other wasps.

European Hornet

European Hornet – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

What are Wasps?

Wasps are a diverse group of insects that belong to the Hymenoptera order. They can be categorized as either solitary or social and come in a variety of sizes, colors, and shapes.

Some wasps are parasitic and feed on other insects, while others are pollinators that help maintain plant populations. Unlike hornets, not all wasps have the same aggressive tendencies, and many species are relatively harmless to humans.

One of the most well-known types of wasps is the yellow jacket, which is a social wasp that is similar in appearance to a hornet. Yellow jackets are known for their bright yellow and black coloration and their tendency to build nests in the ground or in other protected areas. They are also known for their aggressive behavior and can be dangerous to humans, especially if their nests are disturbed.

Other types of wasps include paper wasps, which are known for their papery nests that are often found hanging from eaves or tree branches. Paper wasps are generally less aggressive than yellow jackets or hornets and will only sting if they feel threatened.

Mud daubers are another type of wasp that build nests out of mud. They are solitary wasps and are generally not aggressive towards humans.

In addition to their role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem, wasps also have some practical applications for humans. Some species of wasps are used in biological pest control, where they are introduced into an area to prey on insect pests that are damaging crops or other plants. Wasps are also used in scientific research to study behavior, genetics, and other aspects of insect biology.

Red Wasp gathering wood

Red Wasp – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Physical Differences Between Hornets and Wasps

When it comes to insects, hornets and wasps are often mistaken for one another due to their similar appearance. However, upon closer inspection, there are several physical differences that set these two species apart.

Size and Color

As mentioned, one of the most significant physical differences between hornets and wasps is their size and color.

Hornets are typically larger than most wasps, with some species reaching over 2 inches in length. Their bodies are also thicker and more robust than those of wasps. When it comes to color, hornets have distinct black and yellow stripes on their bodies and often have a reddish-brown hue.

Wasps, on the other hand, come in a variety of sizes and colors. While some have similar black and yellow patterns, others can be black, brown, or even metallic green or blue. This variation in color makes it challenging to identify wasp species accurately


Hornets – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Body Structure

In addition to their size and color, hornets and wasps also differ in their body structure. Hornets have a thicker and more elongated body than wasps, allowing them to fly faster and with more precision. They also have a distinct waist and a broad head that houses their powerful mandibles.

Wasps, on the other hand, have a more slender and elongated body with a narrow waist. Their heads are also smaller, and they have longer and more slender legs than hornets. These differences in body structure give each species unique advantages when it comes to hunting and gathering food.

Paper Wasp

Paper Wasp – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Wings and Legs

Another physical difference between hornets and wasps is their wings and legs. Hornets have a longer and more extensive set of wings than wasps, which allows them to fly faster and with more agility. They also have shorter legs than wasps, which helps them maneuver through tight and enclosed spaces.

Wasps have longer legs than hornets, which make them more adept at crawling and climbing. They also have shorter wings, which limit their flight capabilities. These differences in wings and legs make each species better suited to different environments and hunting strategies.

So while hornets and wasps may look similar at first glance, there are several physical differences that set them apart. From their size and color to their body structure and wings, each species has unique characteristics that make them well-suited to their respective environments and hunting strategies.

Asian Hornet Nest

Asian Hornet – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Hornet vs Wasp: Behavioral Differences

When it comes to the behavioral differences between hornets and wasps, there are many fascinating details to explore.

Here are some additional insights into their social structures, nesting habits, and defense mechanisms:

Social Structure

While hornets are known for their large colonies and strict hierarchy, there are some interesting variations within this social structure. For example, some hornet colonies have multiple queens, which can lead to power struggles and even civil war within the colony.

Plus, some hornet species have a unique caste system in which some workers are designated as ‘soldiers’ and have larger heads and jaws for better defense.

When it comes to social wasps, there are also some intriguing variations. Some species have a ‘foundress queen’ that starts the colony alone and then recruits other females to help her raise offspring.

Others have a ‘queenless’ system in which multiple females lay eggs and contribute to the colony’s success. Solitary wasps, while not social in the traditional sense, still have fascinating behaviors related to their nesting and hunting habits.

Nesting Habits

While hornets are known for their large and impressive nests, there is more to their nesting habits than meets the eye. For example, some hornet species build their nests underground, while others create aerial nests that hang from cliffs or other vertical surfaces.

Plus, some hornets use a unique ‘paper-making’ technique in which they chew up wood fibers and mix them with saliva to create the nest material.

When it comes to wasp nests, there are also many intriguing details to explore. Some species build their nests out of mud, while others use plant fibers or even their own saliva.

Some wasps are known for their elaborate nest decorations, such as the ‘antennae’ that some paper wasps add to the entrance of their nests.

European Hornet Nest

European Hornet Nest – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Aggressiveness and Defense Mechanisms

While hornets are certainly known for their aggressive defense of their colonies, there are some interesting nuances to their behavior. For example, some hornets will ‘play dead’ if they feel threatened, in an attempt to trick predators into leaving them alone.

Plus, some hornets have a unique ‘buzzing’ behavior in which they vibrate their wings to create a loud noise that can be heard from several feet away.

When it comes to wasp defense mechanisms, there are many fascinating details to explore. Some species have evolved to look like ants, which can help them avoid predation.

Others use their stingers not just for defense, but also for hunting and killing prey. And as mentioned earlier, some wasps can release pheromones to signal for backup if they feel threatened.

Paper Wasp Nest

Paper Wasp Nest – Photo Credit Shutterstock.

Hornet vs Wasp: Diet and Feeding Habits

Hornets and wasps are fascinating creatures that play an important role in the ecosystem. These insects are known for their unique feeding habits and their ability to regulate pest populations.

Let’s take a closer look at their diet and feeding habits, and the impact they have on the environment.

Hornets’ Diet

Hornets are omnivores and feed on a variety of insects, including flies, bees, and other wasps. They have a special liking for honeybees, which they can decimate in large numbers.

Hornets also feed on nectar and tree sap, which provides them with a source of carbohydrates. They are known to be ferocious predators and can take down prey that is much larger than themselves.

They are essential predators that help regulate pest populations and can play a critical role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem by controlling insect populations.

Wasps’ Diet

Like hornets, wasps are also omnivores and feed on a variety of insects and arthropods. Some species of wasps are parasitic and feed on other insects as a source of protein.

In fact, without wasps your garden would be full on plant-eating pests such as aphids, flies, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. Other species are pollinators that help maintain plant populations.

Wasps are also attracted to sweet and sugary substances, like nectar and fruit. They are known for their unique feeding habits and can often be seen hovering around flowers and fruits, collecting nectar and pollen.

Impact on the Ecosystem

Both hornets and wasps play an important role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. As predators and pollinators, they help regulate pest populations and maintain plant populations, respectively. They are also important food sources for other animals, including birds and small mammals.

However, when populations of hornets or wasps become too large, they can have a negative impact on the ecosystem and become a nuisance to humans. In these cases, it’s important to take steps to manage these populations and prevent infestations.

Bald-faced Hornet

Bald-Faced Hornet – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Hornet vs Wasp: Stings and Allergic Reactions

Stings from hornets and wasps can be painful and uncomfortable, but knowing how to treat them can make all the difference. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a sting, it’s important to stay calm and take the necessary steps to alleviate the symptoms.

Hornet Stings

Hornet stings are notoriously painful and can cause significant swelling and discomfort. Hornets are more aggressive than other stinging insects, and their venom is particularly potent. When a hornet stings, it injects venom into the skin that can cause an immediate reaction.

If you are stung by a hornet, it’s important to act quickly to reduce the symptoms. The first step is to clean the area with soap and water to prevent infection. Then, apply a cold compress to the affected area to reduce swelling and pain. You can also take over-the-counter pain relievers to help manage the discomfort.

Wasp Stings

While wasp stings can also be painful, they are generally less severe than hornet stings. Wasps are less aggressive than hornets and are more likely to sting in self-defense. When a wasp stings, it injects a small amount of venom into the skin that can cause redness, swelling, and pain.

If you are stung by a wasp, the first step is to clean the area with soap and water to prevent infection. Then, apply a cold compress to the affected area to reduce swelling and pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help manage the discomfort.

Treating Stings and Preventing Allergic Reactions

For most people, a hornet or wasp sting is a painful but relatively harmless experience. However, some people may experience an allergic reaction to the venom, which can be life-threatening. If you experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing, swelling of the face or throat, or a rapid heartbeat after being stung, seek medical attention immediately.

Over-the-counter antihistamines can help alleviate the symptoms of a sting, but they are not a substitute for medical treatment in the case of an allergic reaction.

It’s also essential to take steps to prevent future stings. Avoiding nests, wearing protective clothing when working outdoors, and using insecticides to manage infestations can all help reduce your risk of being stung.

Remember, if you are stung by a hornet or wasp, stay calm and take the necessary steps to alleviate the symptoms. With the right treatment and prevention strategies, you can enjoy the great outdoors without fear of stinging insects.

Potter Wasps

Potter Wasp – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

Pest Control and Prevention for Hornets and Wasps

Pests like hornets and wasps can be a nuisance and even dangerous, especially if you or a family member are allergic to their stings. It’s important to take steps to identify and remove any infestations, as well as prevent future ones.

Identifying Infestations

When it comes to identifying hornet or wasp infestations, there are a few key things to look out for. These insects are typically active during the day, so you may notice buzzing or swarming around your home or property. You may also see the insects themselves flying in and out of a nest.

The location of the nest can also give you a clue as to the type of insect you’re dealing with. Hornets tend to build their nests in high, sheltered areas, like the rafters of your home or under eaves. Wasps, on the other hand, may build their nests in trees or bushes, or even underground.

Safe Removal Techniques

If you do find a hornet or wasp nest on your property, it’s important to remove it safely and carefully. Attempting to remove a nest on your own can be dangerous, especially if you’re allergic to stings.

One option is to use insecticides specifically designed for hornets and wasps. These can be sprayed directly onto the nest, but it’s important to follow all safety guidelines and wear protective clothing to avoid getting stung.

Another option is to hire a professional pest control service. They will have the expertise and equipment needed to safely remove the nest and any insects.

Preventing Future Infestations

Once you’ve dealt with a hornet or wasp infestation, it’s important to take steps to prevent future ones. Here are a few tips:

  • Seal up any cracks or holes in your home’s exterior to prevent insects from getting inside.
  • Remove any standing water on your property, as this can attract insects.
  • Keep your lawn trimmed and tidy, as overgrown vegetation can provide a hiding place for insects.
  • Consider using natural deterrents, like citronella or mint, to repel hornets and wasps.

By following these tips, you can help keep your home and property free from hornets, wasps, and other pests.

Cuckoo Wasps

Cuckoo Wasp – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.


Hornets and wasps may be seen as pests by some, but they play an essential role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. By respecting these insects and taking steps to manage populations, we can coexist with them and appreciate their unique characteristics.

With their significant size, aggressive behavior, and potent stingers, hornets are a fascinating group of insects, while wasps’ diversity, pollination, and predatory behaviors make them a valuable member of the ecosystem.

By understanding the differences between hornets and wasps, we can learn to appreciate and respect their place in the natural world.

Other Wasp Guides from Planet Natural:

Most Common Types of Wasps (And How to Identify Them)

How to Get Rid of Wasps Effectively and Prevent Future Nests

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Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa's work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.