Contrary to common thought, hornets do not attack humans. In fact, scientists theorize that this tiny insect is actually shy.
Hornets belong to the order Hymenoptera, and are defined as any member of a group of social wasps that build nests made from chewed plant foliage and wood. The stinging insects of the wasp family are closely related to bees and ants, though unlike their similar cousins, hornets have no interest in humans.
It was the European hornet that first appeared in the eastern portions of the United States in the early 1800's. Research has shown that hornets are capable of hitching rides on human transportation and scientists now theorize that they made it to the U.S. by boat or plane. The first documented sighting of a European hornet was in New York state in 1840. Since that time, hornets have spread through out the U.S., Europe, Asia and Canada. Due to lack of information and human fear, much of the hornet population borders on extinction in Europe and parts of Canada.
The female hornet measures from .5-1.5 inches long. Males and workers are significantly smaller in size. Eyes of the hornet are deeply indented and C-shaped. Wings are colored reddish-orange and the abdomen is orange with a single brown stripe crossing its middle.
Like almost all other nest building insects, hornets work to defend their colony. Rapid movement around a colony is considered a threat by the hornet population and could result in a sting. Outside the nest however, hornets almost never attack groundlessly. In fact, scientists have concluded that hornets are amazingly peaceful and remarkably shy, preferring to keep a distance from humans. Unlike the common bee, the hornet most often uses its stinger to kill insects, not people.
Unlike other wasps, hornets do not plague picnic goers in search of food. While an open window or door may be an invitation to worker hornets who are looking for building supplies, they do not enter with the intent to steal food or harm you in any way.
With Spring, comes the emergence of new queen hornets that were born the previous Autumn. Hornets are capable of surviving harsh winters by burrowing in rotten wood or ground matter and slowing their metabolism. Once newly introduced to the world, the female queens take to finding a suitable nesting place and food. After choosing an appropriate spot to nest, the queen makes a small stalk from which the nest will be suspended. The queen adds the first few cells of the nest and then begins adding eggs to each individual cell. Within 5-8 days, larva develop and begin a 12 day metamorphosis. When fully grown, larva produce fine silk threads, which they then use to cover their own cell. Once completely developed into a hornet (13-15 days later), the young hornet bites its way out of its cell and joins the rest of its community. Workers then begin to construct the paper sleeve of the nest, which will eventually cover and protect each cell. Individual cells will be reused 3-4 times during the summer months by different groups of newly born hornets.
Once 5-10 female workers have emerged, the queen flies less and less. Workers take over her job of foraging for food, allowing the queen to become nest bound. Once safely hidden within the nest, the queen focuses solely on reproduction. She will never leave the nest again. The queen dies inside the nest at the end of the Autumn season.
Young mated queens begin searching for a winter nest in late September. After gathering nectar, they work to make their seasonal home and do not emerge again until May.
Like other social wasps, hornets use paper and wood pulp to construct their nests. Rotten wood is often used as the building material. Workers can often be found scraping wood fragments from fences, buildings, telephone poles and homes, and bringing it back to the colony. Once retrieved, a worker will mix the wood shavings with saliva and chew it into a ball. This makes the fiber soft and moist and easily moveable. Removing it from the mouth, the worker then spreads the moist wood fiber on to the existing nest. After thoroughly drying, a tough, durable paper material is formed. The striped pattern often formed on individual nests is characteristic of the hornet. Each different colored stripe or marking represents a different tree.
The hornet survives on a variety of insects. Once captured, hornets will often dismember insects, removing the head, legs, wings and abdomen of the prey. It is only the thorax that they transport back to the nest and feed to growing larvae and other workers.
Workers most often consume flies, spiders and other wasps. Many workers fly at night, catching nocturnal insects and returning them to the nest.
The queen bee, needing more protein than workers, feeds on the seep sap of trees. They can also survive on the juice of ripe fruits.
Queen bees live approximately one year. Workers survive for 3-4 weeks.
Hornets are protected animals in Germany, and have been since 1987. Due to an overly fearful population, many areas in Europe attempted to eradicate the common European hornet. Natural tree cavities and hornet boxes have been erected by hornet protection groups, in recent years, and most government officials worldwide are working to re-establish the hornet population.