By way of introduction, here is a hornet-related anecdote: There was once a female septuagenarian who lived in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. This woman owned a colonial-style home with a large, covered front porch. On this porch was a very active hornet’s nest perched on one of the inside eaves. One summer’s day, a boy of eleven, hoping to make a little extra money cutting lawns, knocked on this elderly lady’s door and asked if she needed her grass cutting.
She did not, as it turned out, though there was the matter of the hornet’s nest on the porch, which she was willing to pay handsomely ($20… a full Andrew Jackson!) to have removed. The boy confessed his reticence. He had no experience with removing hornet’s nests and was pretty terrified of being stung.
The old woman assured him that his fears were unfounded because she knew some folk hoodoo that would repel the hornets. All the boy had to do, according to the matriarch, was to rub his hands in his armpits and then smear the sweat over his exposed skin. If the boy did this, he could not be stung. Since he was only a naive young boy, and she seemed a sweet grandmotherly type, he took her at her word and promptly followed her advice.
He coated his entire body with the stench of his own armpit (quite potent, as it was summer after all, and the normal school night shower requirements had become more relaxed), and then approached the buzzing nest with trembling arms extended.
For her part, the elderly woman immediately sought the protection of her screen door. Later, as he ran screaming down the street, stinging insects attacking his back, neck, legs, and – ironically – his right armpit, the young boy could hear the witch cackling from behind her screen door. It was a sound the boy would never forget.
Needless to say, if you have discovered a hornet’s nest on your property, the above-cited method is not the safest way to remove the potential danger. The remainder of this article will focus on differentiating hornets from other insects, as well as highlighting proven techniques that will allow you to prevent these pesky fear-mongers from nesting near your home and, if necessary, remove this painful pest from your property with minimal risk.
What is a Hornet?
For starters, hornets are not just a mascot for the NBA team based in Charlotte, North Carolina; they are social creatures belonging to the Hymenoptera class that also includes bees, wasps, and ants. They belong to the subspecies of Vespinae and are members of the Genus Vespa, which includes all hornets and are a close cousin of the dreaded Yellow Jacket, a common and aggressive wasp species.
There are about 20 species of hornets in the world and their distribution is widespread. They live in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America. The European Hornet is an introduced species to North America. Hornets are active from spring to fall; the queen will pick a site for the nest in May and all members of the colony, except the queen herself, will be dead by October.
Though not as aggressive as their aforementioned cousin – the Yellow Jacket – hornets are known to be territorial and will attack in swarms, if they feel that their nest is under threat.
Likewise, their stings have the same score on the Schmidt Pain Index as Yellow Jackets, and has a bite described as, “Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.”
As an added bonus, hornets are able to one-up bees yet again, since a single hornet is capable of stinging an offender multiple times. Like wasps and bees, hornets release attack pheromones when they feel threatened. This is a pheromone that other hornets from the hive pick up on and are drawn to. This is why bees, wasps, and hornets often seem to attack in swarms, stinging again and again.
Hornet stings are more painful than a bee’s sting as they have a higher level of toxins in their venom. Hornets can sting multiple times as they have a smooth stinger that does not remain embedded in the skin of their perceived attacker. In fact, one hornet species, the Vespa Luctuosa, which is found in the Philippines, has one of the highest toxicities of any known insect.
Unless you are a masochist, the chances are that this experience is something you would like to avoid. You can prevent this by knowing how to spot a hornet’s nest and determine whether it’s proximity to human habitation poses a risk.
The Hornet’s Nest
Hornet’s nests typically look like some unholy mutation of a beehive and a wasp’s nest, meaning that they have a paper-like consistency derived from their being constructed of saliva and wood pulp, but are typically fully enclosed with only a small “door” that allows the insects to come and go as they please, and can usually be found in trees, rafters, or under eaves – the moral being that hornets like concealment and cover.
Hornet’s nests are an extremely interesting structure. The queen, which is a fertilized female from the previous year, selects a safe and sheltered location for the nest. Dead hollow trees should always be removed to prevent hornet’s nests from forming. Unfortunately, a sheltered site may also be behind your brick or in your hot tub siding. She then makes combs out of chewed up bark and saliva, which is why hornet’s nests have a papery look to them. She then lays an egg in each cell.
Once these babies grow into adults, they become workers and take over nest-building duties, as well as the child-minding duties, which is why hornet’s nests can get so huge. All worker hornets are female. There are only a few males in a typical hornet colony. They do not have stingers and their only real role is to mate with the queen so she is fertile the following year. Males will typically die shortly after they have mated. In a hornet colony, only the queen survives the winter.
Unlike bees, hornets do not make honey or pollinate plants, but rather act as predators feeding on other insects, which can be beneficial.
Types of Hornets
Worldwide, there are 20 known species of hornet. In North America, however, there is only one true hornet, the introduced European Hornet, sometimes called the Giant Hornet. These carnivores are aggressive about their nest and have the potential to be aggressive in attaining food.
European Hornets are larger than a wasp and are typically brown and yellow instead of black and yellow. Their faces and wings have a brownish-red tint to them. Only females in this species have the ability to sting.
Like all other species of hornets, the queen picks the location of the nest and she starts building the hive herself. The task of nest building is then passed onto to the workers. The nest site is, as is typical with most hornet species, aerial to protect the young from ground-dwelling predators.
European Hornets are elitists and the workers will dispose of any eggs that are laid that do not come from the queen. In Germany, European Hornets enjoy the status of a protected species. It is illegal to destroy a hornet’s nest and is punishable by a fine of 50,000 Euros!
Japanese Giant hornet
Other interesting species of wasps include the Japanese Giant Hornet. These guys are really big with the average adult growing up to 4.5 cm. Luckily for us here, the Japanese Giant Wasp lives only in rural areas in Japan.
The Japanese Giant Hornet has extremely toxic venom and is known to be aggressive, often swarming and stinging multiple times. More than 30 stings are considered a medical emergency at their venom is potent and they inject a large amount of it with each sting. A Japanese Giant Hornet Sting is said to feel like, “a hot nail being driven through your leg”.
In their native country, Japanese Giant Hornets are thought of as pests not only because of their aggressive behavior but also because they eat the already threatened honeybees. Japanese Giant Hornets leave attack pheromones on European Honey Bee’s nests, which attract their hive mates, and a swarm of large, highly-toxic hornets can quickly decimate a beehive.
The Oriental Hornet is another notable hornet species. It can be found in South West Asia, Africa and has been introduced to Mexico. It is the only hornet species that is consistently found in desert-like climates.
Oriental Hornets uniquely nest underground. The Oriental Hornet is a solid orange-brown color with a single thick yellow stripe on its back.
The Oriental Hornet can sting if attacked, but can also bite with its robust jaw.
Like the Japanese Giant Hornet, the Oriental Hornet is considered a pest because it preys on threatened honeybees. In addition, the Oriental Hornet is a scavenger and can transmit disease from one beehive to the next. They also can transmit disease from infected to healthy plants.
White-Faced Hornets are also known as Bald-Faced Hornets or scientifically as Dolichovespula maculate. Despite their name, White-Faced Hornets are, in fact, a type of wasp. They are just called hornets because their nests look like a hornet’s nest and they prefer to build it up high like other hornet species. They make up some of the largest colonies in their genus, with hives including 400 to 700 insects.
They are common all over North America, including Canada. However, they are most frequent in the southern parts of the United States. They are known to eat insects and spiders, as well as fruit pulp, and meat, meaning they are often attracted to human habitations.
They defend their nests by stinging multiple times and can also “shoot” their venom, temporarily blinding nest intruders. So, if you are trying to get rid of a White-Faced Hornet’s nest, be sure to stay far away! Only workers and the queen have stingers. White-Faced Hornets are easy to differentiate from other wasp families, as they are white and black as opposed to the more common bright yellow and black.
Breaking Out the Hives
Because of its higher toxicity, hornet stings are extremely dangerous for people who are allergic to the stings. If you are allergic to bee stings, we recommend that you do not attempt to remove a hornet’s nest yourself. This could be extremely dangerous and we advise that you contact an exterminator instead. In North America, hornet stings are painful, but usually only lethal in cases of allergic reaction. Other species of hornets, especially in Asia, can be lethal to people and even larger animals. The Japanese Giant Hornet, for instance, is responsible for multiple human deaths each year and has been nicknamed the Yak-Killer Hornet due to the toxicity of its venom.
The Best Protection is Prevention
Clean Up After Yourself
In later life stages, hornets become scavengers. Therefore, it is important to keep food scraps away from your home if you want to prevent or discourage hornets from nesting near your house. Keep compost and garbage well contained and sealed away. In the later months of summer, avoid eating outside and feed any pets indoors. Do not allow dogs to have treats such as rawhide bones or pigs ears outdoors. Also, be wary of bird feeders in the dog days of summer.
Illusion is Everything
Although they are aggressive, hornets prefer to avoid conflicts with other colonies. You can make mock nests during nesting season to deter a future queen from building her nest near your home.
Keep your Property Tidy
You should always make sure that you aren’t accidentally inviting hornets to nest in your home. Replace loose shingles on your roof and seal up holes in the exterior of your house to prevent them from getting in. If you have a hot tub, seal the siding as the warmth and darkness make the interior wall of a hot tub an ideal nesting place. Also, remove and dispose of any dead trees on your property before nesting season.
Getting Rid of Hornets
As is the case with any pest control problem, the safest and most effective way to rid your property of an infestation is to consult a professional. If, for financial or other reason this is not possible, here are a few tips that should help you accomplish this safely:
Wear layers of clothing, rubber gloves, boots, and some type of veil or face shield. Tape up sleeve and collar openings so that you don’t end up with a “friend” inside your clothing. The thicker the material, the better. If you can get your hands on a beekeeper’s suit, do it.
Attack at Night:
Like most of us, hornets like to spend their evenings with the family and unwinding on the sofa. Once the sun sets, it is a pretty safe bet that you will have all the hornets concentrated in that one area. They are also less active at night so the attack will surprise them and it will take them longer to get going.
Use a Flashlight:
Makes sense, right? After all, it’s nighttime, and you have to see what you’re doing… but everyone knows how insects react to a light in the darkness. In order not to attract unwanted attention from your would-be prey, wrap the end of your flashlight in red cellophane.
The Spray Method:
The most important piece of advice that can be given here is to choose a sprayer capable of propelling a stream several feet, because you will want to be as far removed from the nest as possible while spraying. Also, you are going to need to spray a constant, steady stream inside the Ritz cracker-sized opening.
This is the only way in, and the only way out – meaning that, if the hornets want to counter-attack, they’ll have to take a blast of pesticide to the face in order to do so. Spray until you can’t spray anymore. Make sure that you do not simply spray the outside of the nest as this will prove an ineffective killing method and the angry hornets are more likely to sting you or your family over the days that follow.
The Natural Way:
For those who aren’t fond of pesticides, there is a more natural way of getting rid of hornets. All you need is a bucket, water, vinegar, sugar, and a little dish soap. Mix these ingredients together in the bucket in roughly equal portions, and set it under the nest. Soon, the hornets should begin drowning themselves in your concoction. Change out as necessary.
Sometimes Hornets Nearby is No Cause for Worry
It is important to remember that hornets are valuable members of our ecosystem. Just because you can see a hornet’s nest, it does not mean that it represents a threat. Since hornets do prey upon other pesky insects such as deer flies and horseflies, they help to bring balance to the ecosystem on a micro level, and, therefore, should not simply be removed to be removed.
Only exterminate the hornets if they are located in a high traffic area where they present a danger to people. If it is necessary to remove a nest from your property, take each and every precaution outlined above in order to ensure your safety and, as always, consult a professional if at all possible.