Hornets are the largest of the wasp family (the queens reach a size of 35 mm) and are usually quite fat and round – unlike the yellowjacket.
American English and UK English do cause us problems at this point.
In the United Kingdom Vespa Crabro is generally referred to as “the hornet”; Americans call these European Hornets and it is these large rather yellowish creatures that I define as a hornet.
In Europe this is the predominant vespa and we do not really have any populations of black hornets, bald faced hornets and the multitudes of other varieties found else where in the world.
The European Hornet is a large, fat round and surprisingly noisy version of the common wasp. It does pack the most powerful punch in its sting – the sheer volume of the venom is considerable compared to a common wasp – but its many supporters claim that despite their fearsome appearance and sound they are actually not aggressive. The pictures of hornets happily crawling on peoples face are testimony to the Billig family from Germany who firmly take this view.
European Hornets have very similar venom to common wasps and so if you are allergic to wasps you are almost certainly allergic to the European Hornet. However, the wide range of other hornets found in the US do have different types of venom and this does not necessarily mean you are allergic to all hornet venom.
They have a fearsome reputation for stinging and causing considerable harm but in fact they are just as harmful as a yellow jacket or bee – no more and no less. Like most bees and wasps they usually only sting if you are blocking a flight path or are moving rapidly – nests should be avoided at all costs!
The stinging apparatus is similar to the common wasp – a venom sac with an injection tube which is smooth so it is easily inserted and extracted from the victim. Once the venom dose has been delivered the hornet is able to sting immediately again until its supply of venom is depleted. The hornet venom sac contains around 50 mg of venom and so with the typical hornet sting of around 10/15 mg then the typical hornet can sting between three and five times before it runs out of venom.
These “nose pictures” are ordinary Vespa Crabro – giant hornets!. With permission from and thanks to Dr Elmar Billig and his daughter – www.hornissenschutz.de – and show that hornets, despite their appearance, are not always aggressive.