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The hornet (vespa crabro) belongs to the wasp family Vespidae, and is the largest social wasp in Britain.

Hornet, Courtesy of Claude Alleva Hornet, Courtesy of Claude Alleva

Measuring between 30 and 40mm long these formidable looking creatures have quite a scary reputation, but are actually quite docile creatures that only attack when defending their nest. Their large stingers are no more painful than those of smaller wasps, and they are mainly used to attack insect prey - which they chew up and feed to their larvae.

These often misunderstood creatures are great to have in your garden, as they feed mainly on the insects and pests that ruin vegetables, flowers and plants. Adults have also been known to eat spiders, and queens eat tree sap and nectar while laying eggs or preparing for hibernation.

Social insects

Hornets look similar to common wasps but are much larger, and chestnut brown and yellow in colour. Like the smaller common wasp, their colouring and pattern serves as a warning to predators that they are venomous. Hornets are social insects that live together in ‘papery’ nests – these are often built in tree hollows, although some have been found in wall cavities and guttering. They are constructed mainly from rotten wood and wood shavings, which the hornets chew up with saliva into a pliable pulp that can be easily moulded.

The life-cycle of a hornet is similar to that of a wasp. In winter, female hornets hibernate – the majority don’t survive the winter period but the ones that do emerge in spring and become new queens. They begin nest building and lay eggs that hatch into female workers, who then take over the nest building. As the building continues the queen lays both male and female eggs, which hatch and mate in summer. After summer the workers and males die, and the females go into hibernation again.

Last date edited: 28 July 2015