The gentle giant

European Hornet

I’ve been holding on to this subject for a little while, always having something else lined up or that I came across that I ended up talking about first, but I’ve been wanting to post it. Yesterday and today we had guests up, so I didn’t get a chance to take many other photos, which meant this was a great opportunity to sneak this one in.

Not long after our arrival here we started noticing these GIANT, MONSTEROUS wasps coming to the porch lights at night. So large, in fact, that wasp wasn’t the first insect that came to mind when we looked at them. It took me actually catching one, and chilling it in the fridge, to get a good look at it and confirm that it was, indeed, a wasp. A little nervous to even put my hand anywhere near the thing, I was very careful to take my photos quickly, while it was still sluggish from the fridge, and using a pencil for scale rather than my fingers like I often do.

European Hornet

My first thought was a cicada killer, a type of native wasp that is similarly giant. But the markings weren’t right for cicada killer (and I looked at quite a few pictures, feeling at a loss for whatever else it might be). Eventually it took doing a search on for “giant wasp”. That turned up a good number of hits; cicada killers, of course, but also my wasp. Turned out, it’s a European Hornet (Vespa crabro), the largest species of the hornet family, and an introduced species, originally native to Eurasia. It was introduced to New York sometime around 1840, and has become well established in woodlands and forests through much of the east.

Fortunately, these hornets are a fairly peaceful species. Sure, they sting, as do all hornets, but it requires some specific provocation, they aren’t aggressive simply to one’s presence. This proved true as we would go out to check out the moths and other insects coming to the lights, none of the hornets ever seemed even the least bit interested in us, although their heavy, loud buzz was still a little off-putting. The hornets are attracted to artificial light on summer evenings, not unlike many species of ichnumonid wasps and sometimes other types of wasps as well. suggests they may be seeking prey, but the ones I observed didn’t seem to show much interest in the other critters at the light.

European Hornet

The nests the wasps build is a one-time-use-only structure. They nest in hollow trees, or sometimes in attics, which are a decent approximation of a hollow tree if the real thing is not abundant. Like the yellowjackets, another type of hornet, they build paper nests, which reach peak size toward mid-September. They can attain quite a large size by the fall. The queen in the nest then lays special eggs that develop into the reproductives – the new queens and males – which engage in a nuptual flight. The old queen, and the males once they’ve mated, all die, but the new queens find nooks and crannies in which to hibernate for the winter.

In the spring, the new queens emerge and find a suitable spot for a new nest, and get started on building the paper cells. She lays a few eggs in these cells, and provisions the larvae with insects herself. Eventually they mature into sterile female workers, who then take over the duties of building the nest and caring for the larvae, while the queen goes about laying more eggs.

While the larvae are fed insects, the adults feed on nectar and sap, which is high in sugar, providing energy for powering flight. In addition to this, the larvae are able to secrete a sugary liquid, which the workers also use to supplement their food.

European Hornet

Like most insects, the adults have large, compound eyes, and three ocelli on the top of their head. The compound eyes are primarily used for detecting movement and discerning shapes that are useful in navigating and finding nectar sources. The ocelli are primitive eyes that are only really useful for detecting light and dark (something the compound eyes aren’t good at), which helps the wasps stay upright relative to the ground, and also helps in determining day length, etc. It may be that the insects use one or the other of their two sets of eyes to navigate by the sun, and the artificial lights at night confuse this sense.

You can also see well here the large, powerful jaws that the adult uses for catching and dissecting its prey. They’re not used for eating, since the adults don’t eat solid food themselves, but rather for handing the insects that are taken back for the larvae to feed on.

European Hornet

I love close-ups of insect feet. Wasp and hornet feet (as well as many other insects) are neat because they’ve got little spurs at each of the joint, and two long claws at the tips of the foot. It’s these claws that allow them to climb up vertical surfaces, or even to hang from the ceiling, finding little imperfections in the surface that we can’t detect.

European Hornet

The wasp I caught takes a moment to clean her back legs by rubbing one along the length of the other. Her stinger is usually kept retracted unless she’s planning on using it, so it’s not visible here. Given their size, one would expect the sting of this species to hurt like an expletive, but it’s less painful than bee stings. This is because the stinger of the bee is pulled from the abdomen and continues pumping venom into the victim beyond the initial attack, while wasps, since they need to be able to use their stinger repeatedly when collecting prey insects, only inject a relatively small amount. Blackburnian got stung by one when he was trying to remove it to outside (he made the mistake of swatting it), and it barely swelled up or got sore. Their threatening appearance and old wives’ tales regarding the potency of their sting have resulted in the species being persecuted through much of its native range, however, and there are regions within Europe where the hornet is now endangered.

She’s presumably one of the sterile female workers, as the new queens wouldn’t be flying yet by then. Even with the ordeal of being captured, stuffed in a fridge overnight, and then asked to pose for the camera, she was very well-behaved. The only time she showed any reaction was when I pushed the pencil tip up next to her. Even then, she reared back with her front two legs in the air, paused for a moment to assess the threat, then, deciding it was benign, continued walking along the deck railing. Sure are fearsome looking critters, but really they’re just gentle giants.


Author: Seabrooke

Author of Peterson Field Guide to Moths. #WriteOnCon Mastermind. Writer of action/thriller SF/F YA. Story junkie. Nature nut. Tea addict. Mother. Finding happiness in the little things. Twitter: @SeabrookeN / @SeabrookeLeckie

15 thoughts on “The gentle giant”

  1. I really enjoyed this article. I also have a deep appreciation for these creatures. I’ve only seen one nest of these here in New England, but I hope to find more in the future.

    Thank you for writing a great article and for researching your subject well. Too many people do not do their homework when it comes to stinging critters.


    Norman Patterson

  2. Thanks for explaining about wasp stingers. Wasps are one of the few creatures that make me nervous.
    I’ve never noticed wasps out at night; I assumed they were diurnal. And maybe they are, but electric lights mess with their heads… Anyway, there’s nothing like the study of insects to remind us to expect the unexpected!

  3. Hi Seabrooke,
    I just read your ‘Gentle Giant’ feature posted almost a year ago. Like you I love nature, especially insect life, and often observe Vespa crabro in my garden when they collect water from my pond.
    Last winter I removed an empty nest from my attic space. I have now discovered how they enter, and need to seal it up because we have rain coming in through the same hole (missing roof tile). Today I see there is a new nest which has been built this year.
    I notice you say that the nest is ‘a one-time-use-only structure’ Do the hornets abandon the nest at the end of their breeding season?.
    I am not really concerned about removing the nest again, because we don’t use the attic and its sealed off from the rest of the house; BUT, if I close the roof hole, do you think there will be queen hibernating in the attic? If so, what will happen if she lays next spring and the hornets can’t get out? The nest in the attic has never been a problem to us, but the ingress of water is, and I must repair the roof. Would really appreciate your comments.
    Regards, Michael

  4. article was awesome thansk for the info, but to your comment aboutthem not hurting…i actually jus got stung by one and it hurts like hell, maybe everybody is different but mine feels like sumbody stabbing me and burning me at the same time, but im so glad you posted this cause i was trying to figure out what it was that stung me because this is the first time I had ever seen em

  5. Yes, according to my husband who was stung on the chest by one of these, it hurt worse than any other sting he’d ever experienced, and the pain lasted for days. That said, we have lots of these wasps around and they generally just seem to go about their business, like all wasps. Thanks for an awesome article here.

  6. We must have a nest in our crawl space because I’ve found two of these “gentle giants” in my house. They’re alarming because of their size, and the last one actually hid in one of my shoes. If my dog hadn’t noticed it seconds before I shoved my foot in it, I’d have been hopping around today. Thanks for the ID. I tossed the shoe outside to release the best.

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  8. I have a farm in Niagara Ontario, these wasps are becoming a great problem only noticed them last 5 years, they hollow out apples, peaches ,plums. Never been stung yet, but when picking the fruit its hard to know if they are in the fruit due to hollowing out they do. Anyways now i always have spray with me when I pick. Some days I may kills dozens…not GOOD and the damage they due is increasing yearly. I was told if you find a nest you are to contact the Ministry of Natural Resources for eradication since they are an invasive species.

  9. Thanks for the interesting article. We have these Gentle giants in our house. Usually killing 5 or 6 a day for the last week and today so far am up to 9. I don’t like the noise or speed zooming from window to window. Can’t find a nest outside or any entry spot inside, hope numbers don’t keep increasing.

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