Dear Readers, is there any flying creature in the UK that is more feared than the hornet? Wasps may induce a bout of counterproductive flapping at a picnic, a bee in close proximity can be loud and intimidating, but the mere sight of a hornet droning like a Lancaster Bomber across a woodland glade is enough to make many people take a step back. I spotted this queen hornet in Coldfall Wood, and very impressive she was too. They are big insects – workers can be an inch long, but a queen can easily be an inch and a half (don’t laugh, folk in tropical climes! It’s what we count as large here in the UK). In spite of their reputation, hornets are actually much less aggressive than wasps, unless you are unfortunate enough to disturb a nest, at which point I would hope I had my track shoes on. Hornets not only emit an ‘alarm pheromone’ which attracts the attention of other hornets in the event of danger, but also perform a dance outside the nest to gather reinforcements. Hornets are mentioned three times in the Bible, and every time they were enlisted to drive out enemies of ‘the children of Israel’, so we can imagine that our ancestors were well aware of the salutary effect of an airborne army of hornets on the rampage. Having said all this, however, hornets generally just want to get on with their business of making a nest and raising their young, pretty much like the rest of us.
This hornet was very interested in the decaying wood on this oak tree, so I suspect she was gathering wood to make her impressive paper nest, which is often made in the vacated nest holes of birds such as woodpeckers or nuthatches. She chews up the wood to make ‘paper’ and then constructs her nest – the proportion of saliva to wood determines how water-resistant the nest will be. All members of the wasp family like to make their nests in dark places, and so if they can’t find a shady spot they will enlarge the ‘envelope’ around the outside to make it darker inside.
Sadly, everybody these days seems to have read about the Asian hornet (Vespa volutina), which has got as far as France. It is feared because it preys on honeybees, and can destroy whole hives, particularly ones already weakened by lack of food or by disease. All the nests spotted so far have been destroyed, but many of the ‘sightings’ were of European hornets . Nonetheless, folk only have to see a large stripy insect to lose all rational thought. Here, for the record, is an Asian hornet. If you see one, and particularly if you think you know of a nest, do let DEFRA know. As you can see, Asian hornets are much darker in colour than European hornets.
The European hornet is a creature of ancient woodland, and spends much of its time hunting for prey such as caterpillars, moths, and even dragonflies. They are also known to steal food from spider webs, and as some species of wasp will take spiders as prey, arachnids usually keep a low profile while this is going on. It’s easy to forget what beneficial creatures members of the wasp family are: for most of their lives they are carnivorous, taking cabbage white caterpillars and all manner of other larvae by the bucketload.
In ‘Bugs Britannica’ by Peter Marren and Richard Mabey, there is this wonderful tale.
‘ I watched a hornet mining its way into a ripe apple’, says Lawrence Trowbridge. ‘Having dug out a tunnel about the width and length of the hornet’s body, it flew to a perch about a metre away. After a short while, flies began to be attracted to the hole in the apple. The hornet waited patiently until several flies were inside feasting on the sweet juice. Then it suddenly darted out, perched on the apple and killed one fly after another as they tried to escape. Soon afterwards it returned to the apple and carried off the corpses, one at a time, presumably to its nest to feed its brood’.
Whether the hornet had worked out what would happen or was simply taking advantage of the situation, it reminds me that the ability to capitalise on a situation is characteristic of the wasp family – I well remember a wasp returning again and again to the remains of my salmon sandwich to carve off slivers of fish, surely a food that it had never come across before. Soon I realised that it had told its friends too. In the end half a dozen wasps were attending my sandwich in relays, until not a scrap was left.
In some parts of Asia, particularly Japan and China, wasp and hornet larvae have traditionally been eaten, and in the village of Kushihara in Japan they are even ‘farmed’ – small nests are gathered, and ‘grown’ inside special huts. The wasps are fed with raw meat and the nests looked after with great care until the larvae and pupae are ‘harvested’ in autumn, with a special wasp festival, hebo matsuri, being held on 3rd November. You can read more about it here, and fascinating it is too.
I prefer my hornets unmolested though. Watching this one flitting around the oak tree, going about her own business filled me with a sense of wonder, and the feeling that at least some things are still happening in the way that they should. After the coldest May on record, which has led to the failure of so many nests, it’s good to have something to be glad of.
By the way, for anyone who is interested in wasps, I can recommend this fascinating book by Eric R. Eaton – ‘Wasps: The Astonishing Diversity of a Misunderstood Insect‘. Excellent bedtime reading.