Over the last few summers, I’ve seen huge wasps. They haven’t obliged in holding still long enough for me to measure them, but I’d estimate their length close to two inches.
Their yellow and black coloring and shape make them look like super-sized yellow jackets.
I’ve only seen a few each summer, and internet searching their description didn’t yield any definitive results. Chatting about my sightings with a friend, I found my answer — European hornets.
I was surprised. From media I had the impression that these infamous wasps are very aggressive — but the ones I’ve seen fly close to me have seemed gentle, not bothering or buzzing at me in the least.
After identifying, I was able to start reading about them. On university extension websites, I learned they are related to yellow-jackets and are the only true hornet in North America.
Giant Asian hornets look similar, but have bright yellow or orange heads, a distinct feature I would have noticed when I saw the large wasps in question.
True to their name, they are native to Europe. First documented in the United States in 1840 in New York, and they are now well established in this country.
One article said they are endangered in parts of Europe, but I could not find this substantiated from any trustworthy source.
The European hornet makes a paper-like nest, but not usually a free-hanging nest like other local paper wasps. Instead, they prefer to build in places like the opening of a tree cavity.
I read that they are usually only aggressive when threatened or if they feel their nest is threatened. A Lithuanian source reported increased incidents of hornet attacks in urban areas most likely due to logging policies, which eliminated the trees where the hornets usually nest.
Nests can get quite large — with 300-500 workers (apparently, although less commonly, even up to 1,000). All those workers die off when winter hits though, with just hibernating young queens remaining.
In the spring the young queens emerge and start to build new nests. Once each has a good home started, she lays worker eggs to create her colony. In the fall, she lays reproductives — males and fertile females.
My understanding is that they mate (probably with those from another colony), and then the males die with the workers, although this wasn’t explicit in the articles I read.
After reading articles on these wasps, I wonder if I had spotted the queens looking for nesting spots. Workers are apparently about an inch long, and queens are closer to an inch and a half.
I’m quite sure that the ones I saw were longer than an inch. However, I cannot remember what time of year (other than that it was warm) I saw them, so I can’t be sure if it was likely for queens to be flying about.
European hornets are carnivorous, eating other wasps, butterflies, dragonflies, mantises and other insects. They may also eat tree sap and insects attracted to the sap.
Unlike most other wasps, European hornets fly at night. Attracted to indoor lights, they are known to bump into windows and glass doors at night.
In fact, the friend who identified my description of these wasps had encountered them when they tapped repeatedly on her glass door at night.
Although they are not native, I didn’t read about the European hornet causing ecosystem disruption. Since I’ve only seen one or two per summer, I’m assuming they aren’t a problem, and I won’t mind them if they don’t mind me.
ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email email@example.com.