Waspish critters: Hornets, yellow jackets, and wasps

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Beware of hornet nest!
Photo by Seattle Poppy

By Malia Megargee

An ornamental plum tree draped above Frank Kleyn's Richmond Beach roof is the home for a large bald-faced hornet nest.

Dolichovespula maculata, or the bald faced hornet, is in fact not a hornet, but a yellow jacket.

The only hornet in the US is the European hornet, an accidentally introduced non-native species that resides here. Therefore, the name ‘bald-faced hornet’ is a misnomer, sort of like how we call guinea pigs pigs. (They aren’t pigs.) However, to avoid confusion, we still call the bald-faced hornet by its given name.

You can easily distinguish bald-faced hornets by the pale markings on their face, hence their name bald faced. Even though bald-faced hornets are known to have a very painful sting, they are not as aggressive as some hornets. 

Bald faced hornet nest in ornamental plum tree
Photo by Frank Kleyn

In the spring, bald-faced hornets begin building their paper nests suspended in the protective branches of trees. The spherical nests can reach three feet in height. Their nests house a large colony of hornets with a queen, and hundreds of drones, and workers. When the rains and cold winds of autumn return to the Pacific Northwest, the queen will fly off, leaving the other hornets to die and the nest will be no longer be active.

Here in Washington we get many types of waspish critters, all of which we generally classify as wasps. There are many differences despite this. You distinguish a hornet from a wasp particularly by its aggression, since hornets are more aggressive.

Certain characteristics are definitive of each type, for instance: hornets are almost never brightly colored as opposed to wasps. Also hornet's abdomens are generally more rounded than wasps.

In general, wasps are normally pollinators, and hornets and yellow-jackets are predatory. As far as differences go, however, that’s it.

Many people don’t know this and try to identify the wasp or hornet by its nest. The subfamily Vespinae (wasps and yellow jackets), makes nests out of paper, but so do the traditional ‘paper wasps’, which are placed under a different classification of Polistinae specifically for paper wasps.

Bald face hornet lunching on aphids
Photo by Frank Kleyn
Even though these insects have a much feared sting, they are great for your yard, as they eat aphids and other common, yet problematic pests. Frank Kleyn observed this to be true of the bald-faced hornets at his home.

If you really want to get rid of a hornet or wasp's nest, never use pesticides or harsh chemicals, as these are terrible for the environment. They damage non-stinging beneficial insects and birds.

In Shoreline area, there are people who can be hired to remove the nests using natural means. However, my hope would be that you let them be, and instead let them help you and your yard thrive.

Malia Megargee has a passion for bugs of all kinds. She is entering the 8th grade at Einstein Middle School next week.


Maryn September 1, 2016 at 11:09 AM  

Excellent and interesting article. I hope to see more of these.

Anonymous,  September 1, 2016 at 5:52 PM  

So nice to learn about our local wildlife.

ABinLFP September 1, 2016 at 8:26 PM  

We have a beautiful bald face hornet nest in our laurel trees and are happy to have it! I hope they build again somewhere on our property next year.

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