What Is The Difference Between Wasps And Hornets?

The terms hornet and wasp can be very confusing since frequently used common or colloquial names are inaccurate.  So, we must first define what insects are really hornets and wasps.  Scientists classify insects into various species, and in fact, the only true species of true hornet in the U.S. is the European or brown hornet.  However, an insect that is actually a wasp, but almost always identified by homeowners as a hornet, is the bald-faced hornet.  So, to answer this question we will define hornets as only the bald-faced hornet and the European hornet, while the wasps will be the yellow jackets and the paper wasps.

There is still another group of wasps known as the solitary wasps.  This wasp group is small, solitary, not social and usually makes their nests underground.  Since homeowners infrequently see them flying around and they are not a stinging threat, we will not include them in this information.

The following table helps describe the basic differences between our hornet group and wasp group:

Insect Size Nests Color Diet Likelihood to Sting
Hornets @1-1.5 inches long Nests are aerial or in a protected aerial location; large in size, globular and made from paper.  From 100-700 workers. Black & white; brownish-reddish Prey on other insects and rarely are scavengers for sweets and proteins Very aggressive when the nest is disturbed; many stinging individuals
Wasps Most wasps are smaller than hornets - 1 inch or less Both aerial paper nests and ground nests. While yellow jackets will build above and below ground, they build underground most often.  The paper wasps have no paper envelope enclosing and protecting the nest.  From 100-5000 workers Wide variety of coloration. Prey on other insects and are very likely to scavenge for sweets & proteins The yellow jackets are very aggressive, but the paper wasps are not likely to sting unless threatened.

Other differences:

  • Traps that use sweet or protein baits are likely to attract yellow jackets, but not most other wasps and hornets.