Hornet vs. Yellow Jacket

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You don't really want to get stung by a hornet or a yellow jacket, but it's still nice to know which you're dealing with if you start to notice these insects hanging around. This is especially true if you or a loved one has allergies to a specific insect sting. In general, the term "hornet" refers to stinging insects that make their nests above ground. Yellow jackets are those that nest in the ground. There are other distinctions between the two as well.


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Commonly Encountered Species

In the United States, the two yellow jacket species you're most likely to encounter are the Eastern yellow jacket (​Vespula maculifrons​) and the Southern yellow jacket (​Vespula squamosa​). Yellow jackets stay relatively small, usually reaching only about 1/2 inch in length. They're easy to see, however, as their bodies are colored black and bright yellow. They're essentially colored like little Pittsburgh Steeler football fans. Although you may not want to get close enough to check, yellow jackets also have tiny waists.


The most common hornet species in the U.S. are the baldfaced hornet (​Dolichovespula maculata​) and the European hornet (​Vespa crabro​). Hornets have much wider waists than yellow jackets and are often black and white rather than black and yellow. Hornet species that are black and yellow tend to be much duller than yellow jackets, so you can still tell them apart. Larger than yellow jackets, hornets grow to 3/4 of an inch long.

Where You'll See Them

Both hornets and yellow jackets make large, round nests that look like paper. They make this paperlike substance themselves after chewing on tiny slivers of wood. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, you will find hornet nests hanging from trees and roof eaves as well as under decks and porch roofs. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, tend to build their nests underground. You may see large numbers of them flying low to the ground near their nest.


You're also more likely to find your outdoor activities disturbed by yellow jackets. Sugary foods and drinks attract these insects, so the bug hovering around your soda can at the family picnic is probably a yellow jacket. Many hornet species are carnivorous, however, and are far more likely to go for your burger than your beverage.

Behavior and Aggression

Both hornets and yellow jackets can sting multiple times, and this fact has given them a bit of a bad reputation. It's true that both insects can do some damage, and neither will hesitate to do so when defending their nests, but these insects only turn aggressive when provoked. As long as you leave them alone, they will typically return the favor.


Entomologists consider both insects beneficial. They're excellent garden pollinators, and both kill aphids, caterpillars, and other garden pests. Hornets simply eat these insects. Yellow jackets and hornets both feed them to their larvae.

Eliminating Hornets and Yellow Jackets

Given their benefits, it's best to leave these insects alone when you find them and simply give them a wide berth. Unfortunately, this may prove impossible if you find a nest right outside your front door or somewhere else that makes avoidance difficult. In that case, you'll want to remove the problem.


If you choose to do so yourself, wait until nighttime when the insects are all in their nest and much less active. You can then use an insect spray that allows you to stay a safe distance away from the nest during applications.

Even when working from a distance and at night, irritating yellow jackets and hornets is a bad idea. Wear protective clothing and have a planned exit strategy in case something goes wrong. The best course of action is always to call a professional exterminator for help.



Home is where the heart is, and Michelle frequently pens articles about ways to keep yours looking great and feeling cozy. Whether you want help organizing your closet, picking a paint color or finishing drywall, Michelle has you covered. If she's not puttering in the house, you'll find her in the garden playing in the dirt. Her garden articles provide tips and insight that anyone can use to turn a brown thumb green. You'll find her work on Modern Mom, The Nest and eHow as well as sprinkled throughout your other online home decor and improvement favorites.