Hornets vs. Yellowjackets – How to Tell the Two Wasps Apart

When you search for hornets online, you get a barrage of pictures of yellowjackets. Why is that?

These bugs aren’t the same. They’re not only classified differently; they also have different eating and nesting habits. But if you’re curious to see whether you have hornets or their yellow cousins in your house, you might want to check out this quick hornets vs. yellowjackets guide.

Hornets vs. Yellowjackets – How to Tell the Two Wasps Apart

Hornets and yellowjackets almost look that same, but they're individual species with different tastes and behavior. CC Image courtesy of Pixabay and Bombman356 on Wikipedia

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Differences in Appearance

Yellowjackets (or Yellow Jackets) and hornets are both wasps. They’re both members of the Vespidae family, a group of insects that have vertically folded wings and pronotums that expand back to the tegulae, looking like a triangle when you see it from a lateral point of view.

Both insects have the same basic body parts. They both have six legs, two wings and a thin waist which is a common trait for insects of their order.

But this is where the similarities stop. You see, yellowjackets look different. For starters, they’re smaller than hornets. On average, they only grow to about 1 inch while European hornets, one of the most common insects in the US, can grow to up 1.3 inches long. The largest can even reach 2.2 inches.

Additionally, unlike bees, yellowjackets don’t have heavily visible hair on them, so their distinctive colors stand out. They have two dominant colors, black and yellow. Their abdomen has stripes of these two colors which has become one of their most famous identification mark while the rest of their body show vivid patterns of the same hues.

Hornets also vary in colors. European hornets come in a mixture of red, black and yellow. Their abdomen has almost the same stripes as that of a Yellowjacket’s, but their head and thorax are colored red and black. Oriental hornets are red all over with a thick yellow stripe neatly placed on their abdomen, and Asian giant hornets are riddled with black and orange.

Differences in Feeding Habits

Hornets and yellowjackets have almost the same preference when it comes to food.

Both insects are predatory. They hunt a variety of bugs like caterpillars, beetles and flies. And they mostly do this to feed the grubs back in their nests.

They’re also scavengers. They both enjoy sugary food like fallen fruits, honey, nectar, candy bars and sodas. However, yellowjackets are more susceptible to eating meat and carrion from large animals. They like to feed on roadkill and dumpster meat. They like it so much that they even have a nickname – “Meat Wasps”. With this, most homeowners use meat to trap yellowjackets.

For more info on what hornets eat, jump to our post here.

Differences in Nests

Hornets vs. Yellowjackets – How to Tell the Two Wasps Apart

A hornet nest looks like an elongated cone while a yellowjacket's usually has no definite shape. CC Image courtesy of Michael Apel and Hornetboy1970 on Wikipedia

Both insects don’t have the wax-making glands that bees do. So they build their nest from a papery substance made from wood (or mud) that’s mixed with their saliva.

For hornets, their nests usually look like giant football shaped cones that have multiple holes at the bottom, and they’re known to place it almost everywhere. They can build them inside houses, attics, burrows and garages. They can also attach them onto ceilings, walls, wooden beams, trees, shrubs and even on window sills.

On the other hand, yellowjackets typically have the same behavior, but they’re fond of nesting below ground. The Western and Eastern yellowjackets specifically build their homes inside dirt. They either look for preexisting tunnels or holes or they make one themselves. They’ve learned to excavate soil – scraping, carrying and dumping it outside to enlarge the nest. This is why you should be careful threading through yellowjacket-prone areas. You might step on a nest and aggravate them.

This video from SciShow describes the living conditions of both insects, as well as others.

When it comes to hornets vs. yellowjackets, remember that the two may be related, but they’re not the same.

Yellowjackets are smaller, and they look different. They also have habits that their larger cousins don’t do often. So when you’re looking for ways to get rid of one of these insects, it’s best to identify which one you have first. After all, learning about your enemy is the best way to win a battle.

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