European Hornets

12 September 2018 | Posted in James Duncan , Woods Mill at 50 , Insects
European Hornets
© Bob Foreman

By James Duncan

Woods Mill Engagement Officer

There's little doubt that the European hornet, Vespa crabro, is a rather fearsome looking insect. But this ferocious exterior betrays a species that is in fact rarely aggressive. Unlike their infamous relatives, hornets are unlikely to disrupt your picnic. Their sheer size - between 2-3 cm's for workers and males, 3-4 cm's for queens - and riotous buzz can however make them an intimidating proposition. They're our largest and most impressive eusocial wasp species, displaying the very highest level of organisation of animal sociality and frequently more than doubling the size of our more familiar common wasp, Vespular vulgaris. Both belong to the order Hymenoptera, comprising bees, wasps, ants and sawflies. Woods Mill currently resounds to the frantic commotion of hornets - particularly at night. This is where they differ from other members of the wasp family, Vespidae. Hornets are attracted to light. This behavioural trait can leave them viewed with no small amount of trepidation. On warm autumn evenings there's little doubt they'll pay a visit if their nest is placed in close proximity to a well-lit dwelling. Many a recent Woods Mill moth trap has been plagued by them. 

Hornets can of course potentially pack a punch. They harness a sting typical of their family group, though it's non-barbed and won't be pulled from the hornets body, unlike that of a honey bee. It's used predominantly in defense of the hive. The sting doesn't contain high levels of toxic species-specific compounds that tend to be wielded by invasive Asian hornets, and it's toxicity is on average lower than that of the honey bee, Apis mellifera. It is of course worth noting that stings can still trigger allergic reactions, and those susceptible to wasp venom will likely suffer the same from hornets. But the simple fact is that the European hornet is a docile creature, avoiding conflict and rarely displaying any form of aggression unless the nest is approached or the colony is threatened. It suffers from an undeserved reputation.

The hornet queens are the sole colony survivors of a UK winter and they emerge as the weather finally starts to warm in early spring. They waste little time searching for a suitable location for their paper-pulp nest, mixing saliva with chewed plant fibres to create a hardy cement. Though the hornets display an avid attraction to light, the nest site will be quite the opposite, most likely built in a darkened tree hollow or sheltered cavity, usually two metres or so above the ground. Queens lay eggs into individual paper cells which then hatch as infertile workers. Whilst these tend the nest the queen settles into life as an egg-laying machine. The nest expands throughout the summer with new queens and males emerging in early autumn, keen to mate after a 'nuptial' flight. Life is short for the males who quickly die off, followed a short time later by the original queen and workers. The newly mated queens will then search for a hibernation site, never returning to the original nest.  

© Neil Fletcher

© Neil Fletcher

Only 60 years ago the European hornet was a rare beast in the UK, and it was only central southern England that harbored a population. In the last 30 years it's substantially increased its range, spreading both east into Sussex and Kent, and north towards Yorkshire. Unfortunately it's still much maligned in many areas of the world and is in fact locally endangered and even threatened with extinction in parts of Europe owing to the destruction of its nests.

Hornet dietary requirements are surprisingly varied and their substantial hunting abilities sees them capture a wide variety of invertebrate prey. Interestingly this prey is largely used to feed the growing brood, not the adults. In return for this supply, the larvae willingly oblige the adults by exuding a sugary liquid for them to feed on. They have a huge appetite for high energy food sources and can also be found feasting on tree sap, nectar, fruit and carrion. Hornets ultimately do a fantastic job in predating what are frequently regarded as both garden and agricultural pests. Their assistance in maintaining the natural balance of other invertebrates is no doubt a benefit and it seems a great shame that they themselves should be considered a pest. Their presence in a farm or garden should perhaps be welcomed with open arms. 


  • Steven Robinson:

    21 Sep 2018 17:41:00

    Hi James. Interesting read. Having worked in woodlands at wakehurst as a nature reserve warden for 30 years the hornet is a fairly recent visitor and often occupies a dormouse box or 2 . I agree they are a creature that keeps its self to itself and l was very comfortable with their close presence. However last September walking the same route with my dog l have done countless times l was stung repeatedly on my head, arms and back. No matter how far l ran they continued to chase and sting the dog was stung too. And l would say having been stung by wasps and honey bees that a hornet sting packs a far bigger intense pain then the wasps and bees. So guess what I’m saying is that l now have a respect for the hornet and never assume that they will not attack and sting. It was a good painful lesson and l always educate visitors on my experience not to be complacent that the hornet will not attack and sting although 99% of the time they will buzz by. Cheers steven

  • Frank:

    25 May 2019 16:48:00

    Just seen our first European Hornet this year, in Burghfield, came for a quick drink and brush up before flying off.

  • Teresa:

    28 May 2019 19:04:00

    This bank holiday weekend i’ve had to remove 2 from the house or perhaps it was the same one on two different occasions? We live not far from Woods Mill. They are a bit of a surprise, as they are so big.

  • Christine I.E. White:

    29 May 2019 09:08:00

    Have also just seen ( for the first time ever! ) the above European Giant Hornet,in our garden in Poundbury, Dorchester, Dorset – on the same day – 25th May 2019.

  • Sharon Barker:

    30 May 2019 11:43:00

    Hi James, I’m in north Essex and we regularly see hornets here. I’ve just been watching (and videoing on my phone) a hornet flying low over my garden pond and almost hovering as it repeatedly dipped its tail (not head) into the water over a small area of pond weed. Any idea what it was doing? Thanks. Sharon

  • Mia Pollitt:

    31 May 2019 15:41:12

    Hi James, I experienced seeing for the first time a European Hornet on 23rd May 2019, it was trapped in my sitting room by garden door, in Crewkerne, Somerset. Wondered why the dog didn’t want to go into the sitting room !

  • Jill Gainsford:

    31 May 2019 17:59:06

    Never seen these before, but have seen two today (or the same one twice). They are massive! We live between Heathfield and Uckfield.

  • Jill Gainsford:

    31 May 2019 18:43:00

    Never seen these before, but have seen two today (or the same one twice). They are massive! We live between Heathfield and Uckfield.

  • Fleur:

    01 Jun 2019 10:37:00

    Have just seen my first European hornet. It was dipping it’s ‘tail’ into our recently installed garden pond. Happy to see new wildlife being drawn to the water, though I wouldn’t feel happy if ideas any nearer !

  • Tina:

    02 Jun 2019 04:46:00

    We saw a European hornet for the first time yesterday in our garden in a Redditch, Worcs, we were amazed at the size of t!

  • john buckler:

    02 Jun 2019 08:18:00

    just found dead hornet well inside our house having never seen one before. This is Somerset on the mendips close to cheddar gorge.

  • Rupert:

    03 Jun 2019 08:18:00

    European hornet Hagley Hall, Worcs 02/06/19

  • Andy:

    05 Jun 2019 19:22:00

    One of these beauties landed on our patio door, massive and very striking! Plymouth

  • Mark:

    08 Jun 2019 11:25:00

    I had never seen one in Oxfordshire, or anywhere else for that matter, before this summer, 2019. There is clearly a nest close to where I work. They are regular visitors now. Impressively large, like flying thumbs. They look kinda nice too.

  • philippa barton:

    09 Jun 2019 14:21:00

    I have what I am pretty certain is a European hornet next in an empty bee hive. what should I do about it?

  • Shelley:

    10 Jun 2019 11:33:00

    I have just seen one of these on the roof of my house. It truly was huge and the buzz was extremely loud! I dropped my garden shears and ran for cover ! I live in Cardiff

  • John Dunn:

    10 Jun 2019 16:24:00

    A queen was showing an interest in a small bird box, thought it was just hunting but there was evidence of cell building. I moved the box about 10 meters as it was too close to my back door. Happily nest building continues. I was surprised it chose such a small site. I live in Tadley North Hampshire

  • Angela:

    13 Jun 2019 22:04:00

    12 June 2019 European hornet, a queen, 3.8cm, very lively, in bedroom in Devon village. Trapped and then put it outside next morning. It eventually flew away.

  • Sharon:

    14 Jun 2019 13:30:00

    Just caught 4cm one inside for second time within a few days (so maybe a queen and same one). Definitely had them around us for last 5 summers at least. We live next to woods in Chailey, in the heart of Sussex. Glad to have been able to look up info about them. Letting ‘her’ out a bit further away this time…

  • dhiren smiles:

    15 Jun 2019 13:42:00

    Having removed a European Hornets nest with 9 populated cells week or so ago from a disused nest box, we now have a second colony starting in a nest box on the north face of the house. This is a second queen, even larger than the first easily 5cm long. We live in North Devon.

  • Dee Smith:

    18 Jun 2019 07:19:00

    Just had a visit from Hornet, flying through window of cottage where we are staying on holiday in the Bodmin, Cornwall area. Apparently the owners have been visited before

  • Bryan:

    18 Jun 2019 13:09:00

    Caught a European Hornet today and was absolutely blown away by how big they actually are! The one I caught was over an inch in length and was very colourful indeed. Wish I could’ve posted a pic 😔

  • D. Henchliffe:

    20 Jun 2019 14:53:00

    Regularly see hornets on the marina where I live in the south Derbyshire.
    I noticed they were catching wasps & cutting their heads off with a pile( off heads)on the floor.

  • 21 Jun 2019 09:20:00

    First saw a European Hornet in my Abergavenny (South Wales) garden last summer. We keep bees so I was alarmed to see two yesterday. Thank you for your information.

  • Shelagh Graham:

    22 Jun 2019 17:16:00

    This species of hornet has been seen three times at my daughter’s house in Central Lancashire. Twice in the greenhouse and once in the house.

  • Ade:

    22 Jun 2019 20:36:00

    Found two or three recenrly in my cottage, I always release them. Do they nest in roofs commonly ???
    Also great advice, thank you.

  • Chris Sellers:

    23 Jun 2019 13:01:00

    I have seen several of the workers in and around my house over the past fortnight (I live in East Devon). While being reminiscent of a Lancaster bomber (one actually flew within a few inches of my right ear, leaving a draught of wind – seriously) none has offered or shown any aggression. I am now trying to educate my daughter about these fascinating insects – such as the meaning of the markings on these insect (signifying to potential predators that it would be unwise to mess with them). My main concern is that my dog shows a very marked propensity to try to bite any and every flying insect in and around the house – I had to dissuade her from trying to bite a hornet this morning which was crawling about on one of my shoes!

  • James:

    23 Jun 2019 19:06:00

    Just caught a queen hornet making a nest in my garden in central devon.

  • Jackie Wood:

    23 Jun 2019 19:33:00

    We live at Upper Hartfield, East Sussex, on the fringes of Ashdown Forest. Plenty of European hornets here, we spot them daily. One came down the chimney and was discovered by my husband as he removed ash. It was sooty and cross! We kept our distance. I can confirm attraction to light. My bedroom window was open for one minute this evening before a hornet flew in.

  • Richard:

    25 Jun 2019 20:20:00

    I have now seen 6 or 7 of these, just West of Looe, in Cornwall, over the last month. Most have been very large. Today’s was around 40-45mm.

  • Cara Smith:

    28 Jun 2019 12:33:21

    Hi, Just found a nest in my shed, Its freaking me out? Any advice please, I can send pictures? Thanks

  • Robin Skipper:

    28 Jun 2019 21:29:00

    Seen the Hornet three times around our work shop in Hadlow Dowen East Sussex it was on the gate post for a good hour the other day ,then came back the next day flew around for a bit then off ,can’t mistake the noise thay make ,I got a picture of it , the size off it very pretty really did not seem aggressive like wasps though

  • Stephen:

    29 Jun 2019 08:24:00

    Hi, just been woken up this morning, 29/06 by loud droning buzz in bedroom. Huge hornet doing slow circuits of the room. I got out of bed and pulled curtain back from open window to allow it easy exit which it took. I live two miles west of Stratford upon Avon. Presume this hot spell brought it northwards.

  • Alison:

    29 Jun 2019 14:58:00

    I have just come across one of these buzzing in and out of our nesting box (near York). It’s an absolute beast, and very loud indeed. I’m happy enough to leave it there but my husband is seriously allergic to wasp stings – does anyone know if these are likely to induce a similar reaction if he were to be stung?

  • David LAWTON:

    30 Jun 2019 13:16:00

    I have just pickled up a dead giant hornet in the house after we got back of holiday. We live near to Bakewell in the Peak District

  • Richard:

    30 Jun 2019 22:29:00

    Found one of these dead in my Daughter’s bedroom. It was huge!! Must of been a queen. We live in a wooded area in Wiltshire, just South of Marlborough. Savernake Forest is about a mile away!!

  • Barry Harper-Smith:

    01 Jul 2019 23:05:00

    Just seen my first ever European Hornet. It’s massive! We live near St Neots, Cambridgeshire

  • Peter barnett:

    02 Jul 2019 13:52:00

    Have had two in two days I think 1 drone 1 Queen minal near savernake forest

  • denis:

    02 Jul 2019 16:15:00

    I live near Abergavenny on the Welsh borders and most years I have had 1-2 hornets over the summer but this year I am getting 3-4 almost every day coming into our garden house located near woodland which is probably where they are nesting. They are quite scary with their size and loud buzzing and despite reports of their docility I’d not want to get stung by one as I have a bee/wasp allergy.

  • Beverly Taylor-Armitage:

    04 Jul 2019 09:56:00

    Multiple European hornets 🐝 in the air today. Horses very freaked out and needed to be stabled.
    Hay making in the area so probably nests have been disturbed.

    Incredible size and buzz……like humming birds.

  • Amanda Tatham:

    06 Jul 2019 06:48:00

    This spring I found three enormous hornets hibernating in my cottage, one was alive. I put on a shoe I hadn’t worn in the winter and felt something in the toe – luckily that one was dead. Early this morning a huge hornet flew in through my bedroom window and it’s deep buzz woke me. I quickly drew the curtain. It went out and I closed the window but it hovered outside trying to get in again. I’ve not seen them here before in 55 years.

  • Joy:

    07 Jul 2019 13:39:00

    We were woken this morning by a loud buzzing. I gently moved the curtains to find what I believed to be a hornet. I have never seen one before and was shocked by its size. I gingerly opened the window and it flew away. We live in Staffordshire.

  • Amanda Tatham:

    07 Jul 2019 20:44:00

    This spring I found three enormous hornets hibernating in my cottage, one was alive. I put on a shoe I hadn’t worn in the winter and felt something in the toe – luckily that one was dead. Early this morning a huge hornet flew in through my bedroom window and it’s deep buzz woke me. I quickly drew the curtain. It went out and I closed the window but it hovered outside trying to get in again. I’ve not seen them here before in 55 years.

  • lesley hutchings:

    10 Jul 2019 12:40:00

    Found one on my conservatory floor this morning , placed it outside , hopefully ok as the conservatory is not insect friendly !
    A few years ago one night one flew into our bedroom and hid in the wardrobe , i didnt believe my husband til the next morning when it was trying to get out a window

  • Moira Billing:

    11 Jul 2019 07:57:00

    European hornet appeared in my garden room in Thatcham back in June in one of the lights. Sadly died but was impressive – 3.5cm long and 5.5cm wingspan

  • Peter Beeson:

    16 Jul 2019 15:58:00

    I have just found one of these hornets in Heydon, Norfolk.
    Unfortunately I killed it to photograph and identify – sorry.
    The current ‘bad press’ caused a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, they are quite alarmingly big in a small room, added to memories of an attack by South African hornets when I lived there.

  • Angie:

    19 Jul 2019 10:23:00

    We saw what we thought was an ordinary Hornet but after looking it up after remembering its distinct yellow head and big wings (similar to a Harrier Jump Jet face on) very big with a loud drone…spotted in Creepy Crawley, West Sussex

  • Barbara:

    19 Jul 2019 14:19:00

    Think we have a nest in an oak tree in the garden close ro the house. Mortimer. Berks. Have young grandchildren. What should we do?

Leave a comment