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What is a Hornet?

By Phil Shepley
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A hornet is any of a variety of large social wasps that live in North America, Asia and Europe. Hornets typically live in wooded areas and make their homes in nests that consist of many hexagonal cells and are made from a combination of chewed up wood and plant fiber. These nests are built in the spring by the female queen and serve the sole purpose of raising additional hornets. The queen lays an egg into each individual cell, and takes care of these eggs when they hatch into larvae. She will then feed them a diet of protein-rich insects until each larva transforms into a hornet.

The male hornets will then function as workers for their colony by helping the queen expand the nest, gather more food, and assist in raising more larvae. By the end of summertime, a nest can be as large as a basketball and home to a colony of hundreds of hornets. Finally in the fall, new queens are born along with new males whose purpose is to mate with the queen. Then the new queens will find a place to hibernate for the winter and begin the cycle again.

When searching for food, the worker hornets feed primarily on carbohydrate-rich fluids such as tree sap. They are also known to hunt other insects as well, including flies and other more vulnerable hornets and bees. When foraging during the warmer months, the hornets are also known to gather water and insert it into the nest for the purpose of keeping it cool.

A hornet will often be aggressive when provoked, and will sting. The hornet’s sting can be venomous while causing pain and swelling, and the amount of toxicity of the sting can vary widely between hornets. One particularly dangerous aspect of hornets is their ability to mobilize their entire nest and attack intruders as a group. Some popular species of hornet include the European hornet, known for its black and yellow coloring, the baldfaced hornet, which has a white face and the aerial yellow jacket, which differs from an actual yellow jacket.

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