The European Hornet – more friend than foe

After Rob found a European hornet and nest in the roof of the OGS office, we decided to do some research on them and their benefits.

Words by Carmen Sheridan.

What’s the first thing you think when you hear the word ‘hornet’? A quick google search on them brings up numerous reports of them ‘plaguing’ Britain and sensationalist articles about the ‘murder’ hornets (also known as Asian hornets) that have ‘invaded’ the United States. These negative depictions probably mean your first thought associated with hornets may be ‘danger’, or that they need to be exterminated for presenting a risk to us. Hopefully this article will balance these reports and show some of the positives of our native European hornets.

European hornets are wasps of the genus Vespa, and like bees, they live in social colonies with a queen. They construct paper nests from plant materials that are chewed and broken up by the workers, which is then cemented together with their saliva. These intricate nests are protected from harsh winds and rain by the strength of this ‘saliva’ cement. They can be seen between May and November, when queens die off. 

European hornets, contrary to belief, mostly avoid conflict and tend only to sting when provoked or when their nest is disturbed. They are indicator species and a sign of healthy balanced ecosystems. This is due to them being mostly carnivorous and predating on wasps, beetles, moths and dragonflies. Therefore, if there is a hornet around, it means these other beneficial insects are likely close by. Hornets can be useful to gardeners and farmers as they predate on many garden pests, like caterpillars and greenfly. It is estimated that social wasps (including hornets) capture up to 14 million kilograms of insect prey in the UK alone! Our ecosystems need this balance, for if we eradicate predators such as these, one species can overwhelm an ecosystem.

Another advantage of the European hornets is that they are pollinators. They need high levels of protein to keep them going, and they gain this from nectar in flowers and fruiting trees. During their search for this, they contribute to the pollination of flowers.

Unfortunately, due to fear of hornets. Many of their nests are destroyed leading them to become endangered in places. In Germany, hornets are granted protection due to the important role they play in ecosystems. Here, no such laws exist, and hornets are widely exterminated. However, if we leave them alone and realise their benefits, they too will leave us alone – and even give us a hand controlling garden pests! This is something we advocate, a less intrusive approach to gardening; sitting back and observing what can happen if wildlife is left to its own devices. Be thoughtful, consider the butterfly effect (the Vespa effect in this case); when we take away one thing, what are the impacts of this that perhaps we don’t recognise? An example being, whilst using pesticides in the garden may destroy pests, a food source for beneficial insects is being taken away. We want to eliminate the idea that insects and creatures don’t fall into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories. They all serve their purpose in the ecology of our environments, and should be encouraged and protected.