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Hornet sightings create a buzz

04 May 2007

To the untrained eye, they may look and sound like normal wasps, but the larger hornet seems to be creating a buzz in the homes and gardens around the UK at the moment.

The Insect Identification Service (IIS) at the Natural History Museum is receiving unprecedented enquires from the public about the insect. Most people are concerned that they are seeing the giant Oriental hornet or the Asian 'killer' hornet, probably due to recent media attention these species have received.

Native European
This specimen is a queen native European hornet, an example of many brought to the Museum.

This specimen is a queen native European hornet, an example of many brought to the Insect Identification Service at the Museum to be identified.

But this is not the case. 'What people are seeing are queens of our native European hornet, Vespa crabro , our largest species of social wasp ' says Stuart Hine, manager of the IIS. 'Queen hornets are formidable looking insects with a body length of up to 5cm .'

Early appearance

'In the UK, emerging queens are not usually seen until about early-mid May,' explains Stuart. 'However, the unseasonable mild spring we have experienced this year appears to have roused them from their slumber earlier with the first sightings in early March.'

Move to the towns

Although distributed throughout much of the UK, the hornet has traditionally been an insect of forests, woods and open countryside and rarely seen outside of these habitats.

'However, in the last five years a succession of mild winters has clearly suited this wasp and it has increasingly been observed in towns and cities,' Stuart adds.

Nests and survivors

The queens are the sole survivors of nests of the previous year. They hibernate in rotten or hollow trees, sheds, outbuildings, roof spaces and other similar places.

The nests of V. crabro usually only contain hundreds of individuals, whereas other social wasp species commonly contain several thousand.

Less aggressive

Despite their intimidating size and rattling sound, V. crabro tends to behave less aggressively than other social wasps and is certainly less prone to attack and sting. The queen is actually larger in size than the Asian hornet.

The sting of V. crabro is said to be no worse than other species of social wasp despite their size. It is used as defence but is principally used to immobilise their insect prey, which are macerated (chewed up and made soft) and fed to the hornet larvae.

Scary but nice

As predators, hornets help to control numbers of other more prolific insects. Like other social wasps they are considered a gardeners friend by predating a large variety of adults and larvae of insects that are considered pests of fruits, vegetables, plants and shrubs. 

Asian Hornet, Vespa velutina

In 2004, the Asian hornet was accidentally introduced into southern France with imported goods. Reports in France raise concerns about the aggressiveness of this species of hornet, which certainly appears to be true where it is found in Asia, where it is quite feared. It also readily attacks and feeds on honeybees, thus threatening the livelihoods of beekeepers in southern Europe.

This species has been increasing in numbers and range over the last three years. 'However,' adds Stuart, 'it is certainly a long way off arriving in the UK - though with the predicted increase to European temperatures in 10-15 years time, this may be possible'.

Oriental Hornet, Vespa mandarina

A recent BBC documentary has brought the Oriental hornet to the attention of the UK public. 'V. mandarina is a much larger species than our native hornet, up to 7cm in length,' says Stuart.

'This is, at present, confined to Japan and surrounding areas and will not be making an appearance in the UK in the near future'.