basham european hornet

Big and bold is the most apt description of the European hornet, a frequent unwanted guest at picnics as the weather begins to cool.

As the brisk winds of fall begin to close in around this time of year, everyone tends to crowd a little closer together at the picnic table.

Many insects are also looking to get right up in our grills this time of year, most notably social wasps and bees, who raid open beverages and plates at a moment’s notice.

This behavior tends to get more brazen as the weather gets colder and their normal sources of nectar and protein in the environment become scarce.

Fall is normally when bad wasp encounters happen, when hungry wasps come into close contact with people and their food.

Try to keep in mind that these animals are important members of our landscapes, dispersing seeds, pollinating flowers and of course preying on almost anything they can get their hands on.

While they deserve respect, they are not to be overly feared, and in most cases are more interested in finding food or drink than picking on people. I tend to leave some snacks for my hymenopteran homies in the fall if I am pestered as I eat outside, in the form of small pieces of meat and/or sugary drink. This normally keeps them away until I have left the area.

While most bees and wasps coming closer in the fall have lived here for millions of years, there is an exotic species that makes itself especially apparent as well.

The European hornet, probably brought here in the 1800s, basically looks like a huge yellowjacket. These large, social hornets are actually the only true hornets in North America, scientifically speaking.

They can reach over an inch in length and are easily seen from far away. Unlike our native yellowjackets, which tend to nest underneath logs or in buried chambers, Europeans prefer to craft their paper mache abodes in hollow spaces above ground.

Like most other social wasps, their combs and outer protective nest structures are made from a mix of plant pulp and (mostly) special wasp saliva. They have developed both the wherewithal and sufficiently viscous saliva to craft the perfect material, both absorbing and repelling water as needed.

Because of the sheer size of European hornets and their nests, they can actually cause some pretty severe damage to the trees and shrubs they use to gather material. This is one reason why they are considered a pest here, along with their ability to bully other wasps and native wildlife away from nesting or feeding sites.

The injury doesn’t stop there – European hornets have even been documented stealing prey from the webs of hopeful spiders. Because of their mammoth size, even a few of these insects can really crash a party if a guest or two has reservations about sharing their portion.

Unlike many other wasps, European hornets like to forage at night. If you have noticed lots of them in your area, fall and early winter dinner parties should happen indoors if possible until their populations are under control.

For this, locate the entrance to any nests you can and wait until after the first frost. By then, the colony should have died off. Cover the entrance with a rock or piece of wood to make it impossible for the next generation to move into the same space next year.

As far as outright killing them, that is a multifaceted question. In their native European range, these animals are actually becoming increasingly endangered. The European hornet populations in North America could someday be some of the last in the world – so I recommend against any full scale crusades aimed at their complete eradication. But if you happen to have a newspaper in hand when you see one, swat with caution.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. He can be reached at brannen.basham@gmail.com.