Learn About Yellow Jackets vs Hornets – The Key Differences and Similarities

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​Wasps, we all know and fear them. The tiny, yellow-tinted terrors have haunted gardeners picnickers, or anyone enjoying the great outdoors, since time immemorial. They fly into our sodas, chow down on our sandwiches and, worst of all, sting us. They are living nightmares, and we all know them. Or do we? “Wasp” is a broad term, encompassing many, highly different species, including the not at all similar hornet and yellow jacket. And if you want to deal with them more effectively, either as a beekeeper or someone looking to get them off your property, you need to understand the distinction. So read on and uncover: yellow jacket vs hornet, what is the difference?

Difference Number One: Physicality


As broad as the term “wasp” is generally applied, it is an actual category of animal with distinct characteristics. Yellow jackets and hornets are both classified as wasps, meaning they both belong to the Vespidae family and have vertically folded wings and pronotum that expand back to the tegulae, which looks like a triangle when viewed from a lateral perspective.

They also have the same basic body parts, including six legs, two wings, and thin waists. Beyond these basic similarities, however, yellow jackets and hornets look completely different. For starters, yellow jackets are smaller than hornets. On average, yellow jackets are about 1 inch long, while hornets can grow as big as 1.3 inches. The largest hornets can even reach 2.2 inches long. On top of this, while yellow jackets are only black and yellow, hornets vary in color.

European hornets, which are the most commonly found hornets in the continental United States, come in a mixture of red, black and yellow. Even though their abdomens have almost the exact same stripes as that of yellow jackets, their heads and thoraxes are colored red and black. Sometimes they don't even have yellow on them at all. Asian giant hornets, for instance, are predominantly orange. Admittedly, the difference in color can be hard to pick up on. But the difference in size is consistent, and you can use this to separate a yellow jacket vs hornet.

Difference Number Two: Behavior


wasp female worker

Being wasps, yellow jackets and hornets share some similar behavioral patterns. For instance, both insects are predatory. Yellow jackets and hornets both hunt caterpillars and beetles and feed their kills to the grubs back in their nests. Yellow jackets and hornets are also well-known scavengers, showing up around trashcans and above half-eaten candy bars. Where they differ in their eating habits is their likelihood to run into humans.

Yellow jackets are the classic picnic crashers, feeding on sweet liquids and harassing anyone with a soda, juice or piece of fruit. Hornets' diets consist mainly of other insects, and they are therefore far less likely to interact with people. This highlights another, the fundamental difference between hornets and yellow jackets' behavior. Yellow jackets are far more likely to sting people.

A large part of this has to do with the fact that yellow jackets' eating patterns bring them into more regular contact with humans. So, odds are, if you've ever gotten stung by a wasp, it was probably a yellow jacket responsible for your throbbing thumb.

Difference Number Three: Nesting


One of the biggest differences between hornets and yellow jackets is where they make their homes. For a while both build their nests from a papery substance made from wood or mud mixed with saliva, they put those nests in very different locations. Hornets' nests, which resemble giant, tear-drop-shaped cones, have holes in the bottom and can be found pretty much anywhere. Hornets build them in houses, attics, burrows, and garages.

They even attach their nests to ceilings, walls, wooden beams, trees and window sills. Yellow jackets, by contrast, rarely nest above ground. Western and Eastern yellow jackets, specifically, like to build their homes inside dirt. That's because they like confined spaces. They tend to either look for pre-existing tunnels, like abandoned rodent nests, or they make those spaces themselves.

Yellow jackets have developed the means to excavate soil, scraping, carrying and dumping it outside to enlarge the nest. So if you see yellow and black insects rising from the ground, you can be reasonably sure that those are yellow jackets. Also if you see them, take extra special care. Stepping on a yellow jacket nest will aggravate them and lead to you getting stung many, many times.

Yellow Jacket Vs Hornet: Why Should I Care?


wasp hornet insect

Now you might think, “this whole article feels pedantic.” In the grand scheme of things, the difference between yellow jackets and hornets is irrelevant. Why should I care at all? Two reasons, actually. For starters, as much as we might dislike wasps for hovering around our food, and stinging us when we try to swat them away, they serve a purpose. All of them benefit the garden by eating pests, like caterpillars, and pollinating plants.

Some species, however, perform a greater service to us than others. So you want to be sure that what you're disposing of isn't helping rid your garden of vermin. Another reason you should care about the difference between yellow jackets and hornets is that one type of wasp is more likely to sting you and should, therefore, be disposed of. And because they are different, they get disposed of differently. That's the biggest reason you should know the difference, to know how to get rid of their nests and treat a yellow jacket vs hornet sting.

How Do I Deal With A Yellow Jacket Sting?


If a yellow jacket stings you, the first thing you need to do is run. The insects often leave behind a chemical on your skin that marks you as the enemy which incites other yellow jackets to attack. So leave the area as quickly as possible. Also, do not swat at them.

That just makes them mad and increases your likelihood of getting hurt. Be sure to get medical help if you've been stung over 10 times, been stung in the throat or show signs of an allergic reaction, like having trouble breathing, swelling and hives or tightness in the chest. Finally, as soon as you've left the area, apply any of the following to the part of your body that's been stung:

  • ​A paste of baking soda and water
  • ​A meat tenderizer containing papain
  • ​A damp tea bag
  • ​Toothpaste
  • ​Ice
  • ​Preparation H

There are also several commercial sting remedies available, and aspirin and ibuprofen help reduce swelling and pain.

How Do I Get Rid Of A Yellow Jacket Nest?


As mentioned earlier, yellow jackets, hornets and other wasps and bees serve a function in your garden, so, when possible, leave their nests alone. Let them continue to eat bothersome pests, and just allow the cold weather to kill them off at the end of the year. However, if their nest is in a well-traveled area and they pose a threat to public health, it will be necessary to act. The easiest, safest option is to just allow a professional to do it.

hornets insect nest

If, however, you're determined to get it done yourself, follow these steps. First, hang an imitation nest on your deck or patio. It acts as a natural deterrent for yellow jackets and other flying pests. Next, apply control measures on a cool evening. The insects will be home and are more sluggish in cool temperatures.

Wear protective gear, such as beekeeper's attire, and perform one of the following disposal methods.

  • ​Smother them by filling a wheel barrel with ice, dumping it over the hole, covering it with a tarp, and weighing it down with bricks.
  • ​Boil or drown them by pouring 10+ gallons of hot or soapy water into the nest.
  • ​Spraying them with any of the wasp repellants that are available, including organic options that include mint oil.

​Do not pour gasoline, kerosene, or any other flammable substances into the hole. Remember, whatever doesn't kill the insects will infuriate them and cause them to go after you.

​How Do I Prevent Nesting?


​If you are looking to prevent wasps from nesting in or near your home, there are many effective methods available. These include:

  • ​Hanging decoy nests
  • ​Creating traps with water, dish soap, and raw meat
  • ​Covering trash cans
  • ​Growing wasp-repelling plants such as wormwood, spearmint, and eucalyptus
hornets vespa crabro

So for all you gardeners or people looking to have a nice summer picnic, remember, not all wasps are the same. Yellow jackets and hornets are actually quite different. Yellow jackets are smaller, live underground, and are much more likely to sting humans because of their love of sugar. Hornets, by contrast, live in hives that hang from just about anywhere, and eat smaller pests, like caterpillars.

Both are beneficial to gardens, since they get rid of vermin, but can become hazardous. Yellow jackets, especially, are known to be more aggressive towards humans and can be dealt with using ice, hot water, or pesticide spray. The point is, when handling wasps, make sure you know which type you're dealing with because knowing your enemy is the best way to win a war. Or don’t and just get stung.

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