Wasp or Hornet?

Watch the short video above to see how to spot the difference between a wasp and a hornet.

More on wasps and hornets in our blog: Why are Wasps and Hornets Nature’s natural pesticides?

There are in fact four wasp visitors to our gardens but apart from the Hornet they can be difficult to tell apart when watching them. Please note that Common Wasp and German Wasp populations fluctuate, but there is absolutely no evidence of any declining trend for 2015: a good year after the wet summers and spring of the previous few years. Distribution for any species can markedly change in a few years due to habitat loss, short or long-term climate change.

The following extracts are from the excellent Guide to Garden Wildlife by Richard Lewington* with some updates on distribution:

wasps Richard Lewington

Common WaspVespula vulgaris
Yellow with black markings.
Similar in habits and appearance to the German Wasp. The fertilised queen appears in spring,
after hibernation and, having fed, sets about building her yellowish-brown paper nests either underground or in a loft. Thousands of carnivorous larvae are reared throughout the year, first by the queen and then by workers. It is not often appreciated just how useful wasps are in controlling many invertebrate pests in gardens. Common and widely distributed throughout.

German WaspVespula germanica
Yellow with black markings.
The other very common garden wasp, distinguished by the three black dots on the front of the head and the diamond at the front of the abdomen. It nests in similar places to the Common Wasp, but the nest is a uniform grey. Common and widely distributed, except for north-west Scotland and north-west Ireland.

Median WaspDolichovespula media
Yellow and black markings: almost black colour forms are often encountered with greatly reduced yellow banding on the abdomen.
The large queen could be mistaken for a worker Hornet, but males and workers are smaller and distinguished by their heavily marked, sometimes almost all-black abdomens. The nest, usually suspended in a tree or shrub, is mainly grey but often has coloured bands that reflect the different types of wood used in its construction. The Median Wasp is less aggressive than the two common wasps, despite being dubbed the ‘French killer wasp’ by the press. First recorded in Britain in 1980, it has now spread throughout England and Wales and is present in southern Scotland, too.

HornetVespa crabro
Hardly any black on the body with brown, red and yellowish-orange markings.
Hornets are just big wasps. Although the hornet is the largest of the social wasps, it is less aggressive than smaller species and will sting only if provoked. The life cycle is similar to related species, the queen emerges from hibernation in April and searches for a nest site, usually in a hollow tree, where she builds a paper nest from wood scraped from trees and mixed with saliva. The grubs are carnivorous and are fed on insects (mainly flies). On average each nest produces more than 900 workers and later in the season several hundred males and new queens emerge. Distribution has increased in the last 30 years: spreading rather quickly across East Sussex and Kent (historically areas with few hornets). The hornet is now found throughout the Midlands southwards, and in parts of Wales.

* Guide to Garden Wildlife extract by Richard Lewington with his kind permission.
Compiled with kind help from expert Stuart Roberts at BWARS