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What is the Difference Between Hornets, Yellowjackets and Wasps?

Hornets, yellowjackets, and wasps are often mistaken for one another, yet each stings with unique traits. Hornets boast larger frames and a less aggressive nature, while yellowjackets, with vivid yellow and black markings, are known for their territorial behavior. Wasps, diverse in species, range from solitary to social. Intrigued? Discover how these buzzing insects play distinct roles in our ecosystem.
Ken Black
Ken Black

Wasps are any number of insects that are mainly part of the superfamilies Vespoidia or Sphecoidea that may live alone or, more commonly, as part of a communal and social group. The term wasp is a general term that both hornets and yellowjackets are part of. In other words all hornets and yellowjackets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets or yellowjackets.

Both yellowjackets and hornets can deliver a very painful sting and come in different variations of black and yellow. Yellowjackets tend to have more pronounced black and white stripes running across their bodies than do hornets. These insects share many common traits but are also very different. These differences, over time, have led to two distinct species. Hornets grow to a size of .75 inches (1.9 cm). Yellowjackets are slightly smaller.

A yellowjacket.
A yellowjacket.

One of the biggest differences between yellowjackets and hornets is their choices of nesting locations. Yellowjackets are often found nesting underground in areas that have been hollowed out by rodents or other animals. Hornets, on the other hand, usually stay above ground, nesting in trees, shrubs and perhaps under eaves of homes. They both build nests out of wood materials ground up into paper.

Both hornets and yellowjackets will defend their nest if threatened.
Both hornets and yellowjackets will defend their nest if threatened.

The aggressiveness of the two species accounts for another major difference between yellowjackets and hornets. Yellowjackets are usually much more aggressive, especially around their nests. However, yellowjackets and hornets both can defend their nests and as their numbers grow, do so with increasing ferocity as their numbers increase. Therefore, the late summer and fall, when their numbers are at their highest, are the times they cause the most problems for humans.

Another thing that attracts yellowjackets is sweet-smelling aromas. This is often why they are a problem in outdoor areas where people are eating. They are also attracted to the smell of anti-freeze/radiator fluid and may often be found searching near the front of parked vehicles. Again, because they can be quite aggressive, encountering yellowjackets in any situation offers a chance to be stung, but generally they are not interested in people unless they perceive a direct threat.

However, despite the problems they can cause, both yellowjackets and hornets may have a net benefit to humans. They are predatory and often hunt insects deemed to be greater pests than they are. Unless there is a nest in close proximity to a home, or other type of heavily trafficked building, the best thing to do is leave them alone.

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Discussion Comments


@rallenwriter -- The only thing that I've ever found that works are those long-distance sprays, but even using those take some technique.

The first thing you need to do, before you even start to remove the nest, is to make sure that you're dressed properly -- long sleeves, long pants, a drape over your head, gloves and boots are a must.

Then, wait until nightfall, when all the hornets are in the nest, and go underneath and slightly to one side of it. If you stand right underneath it, then it's more likely that a hornet will fall onto you and sting you.

If you do shine a flashlight on the nest, make sure it is through a red filter, so you don't disturb the hornets.

Then, spray away until they're all dead. Honestly, even if you think they're all dead, it doesn't hurt to wait a little and then spray some more -- you really don't want to mess with these guys, they're nasty.

If you still have hornets after that, then you're probably going to need to just call an exterminator.


Are there any really good ways to remove a hornet's nest?

I have one in a tree near my porch, but I really don't want to call a hornet exterminator, those guys charge a lot!

Does anybody have any advice?


Ooh, I hate all of those things, hornets, wasps, yellowjackets, even honey bees.

My uncle used to run a hornets nest removal service and he would sometimes bring home old nests after all the hornets had died. I was always so scared of them, even though I knew that there were no hornets left.

Guess I'm just not much of an insect lover...

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    • A yellowjacket.
      By: Ayupov Evgeniy
      A yellowjacket.
    • Both hornets and yellowjackets will defend their nest if threatened.
      By: Eduardo Gonzalez
      Both hornets and yellowjackets will defend their nest if threatened.