Hornets are one of my favourite animals; they are powerful hunters, they are impressive to look at, I love their amber, yellow and black markings, they are good engineers when it comes to their nests and they are quite scarce in the UK which makes every encounter special. They are essentially top of the invertebrate food-chain, in fact they remind me of big-cats (a tiger considering their colouration) in that if no vertebrates existed there would not be much that could challenge a hornet, or compete with it for food – they are stealthy, big and very strong compared to other wasps.
Alas, the hornet is one of those animals that literally gets a bad press; no British summer would be complete without a Mirror or Mail headline screaming of a vast invading horde of evil killer death hornets laying waste to the home counties. Our gorgeous European Hornet Vespa crabro is often mistakenly reported by terrified Mail readers as the more dangerous and enormous Asian Hornet – which look considerably different and are roughly the size of a gerbil, so you would know one when you saw it. Then every now and again (and it is REALLY rare) someone genuinely gets stung by one and happens to be allergic to their stings – then the papers have a field day.
All of this terror reporting does the hornet a great injustice; in the real world our native hornets are rarely encountered, as with any predator they are not found in vast numbers (and they are persecuted), but if you did come across one they are quite laid-back, usually focused on hunting smaller insects or feeding on nectar or gathering pulp for their nests. On the occasions I have seen hornets they have never paid me the slightest attention, in fact they seemed oblivious – which is in contrast to their commoner wasp cousins which are much more inquisitive.
I would like to shrug off the misguided scare-mongering by tabloids as harmless, but it does have a negative effect on the hornet population. As is often the case, when people are scared of something they lash out irrationally; as a result hornet nests are regularly destroyed if found, particularly if it is near human habitation, this is understandable if the nest is actually in your house (they are usually in hollow tree trunks) but otherwise it is a great shame. As top insect predators hornets are not naturally found in high densities, so destroying just one nest could affect the local population considerably. This persecution has been shown to be a problem; hornets are currently quite scarce across Europe and are even endangered in some areas – in Germany it is actually an offence by law to destroy a hornet nest -with a large fine taken if you do so.
I personally think hornets are beautiful creatures, I have strong memories of every sighting I have had of one; I found an actual hornet nest earlier this year in a rotten tree stump – I watched them crawling under the bark from only a few feet away without any attention from the hornets. In fact I saw some this week in a local park, two or three were buzzing around an ivy bush that was in bloom – feeding on this rich nectar source (and maybe eyeing up potential insect prey too), their orange colouration and size making them stand out among the hoverflies and wasps also on the ivy.
Hornets are also interesting in that unlike most other vespines, reproduction by workers is inhibited not by pheromones produced by the queen but by self-policing. The workers are actually more closely related to the queens offspring than their own and the risk of conflict with the queen or other workers is too high to be worth the effort.
At this time of year hornets are largely scavengers rather than hunters, stealing prey from spider webs or feeding from human scraps, animal corpses, fruit and nectar sources (like ivy). They will probably still be on the wing until the first frosts so keep an eye out; particularly on warm, sunny days. If you are fortunate enough to see one I hope you will be impressed by this beast and look beyond its scary reputation to see its attractive colours, admire its machine-like exoskeleton and marvel at its confidence in the air.
Image by Flugwapsch62 – Own work, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16640505