Both wasps and hornets belong to the insect order Hymenoptera, which also includes bees and ants. At a glance, they appear similar in size and coloration, with yellow and black or white stripes on their bodies. While they share some common traits, there are subtle differences between wasps and hornets that allow you to distinguish them.
The most noticeable difference between wasps and hornets is their size. Wasps have slender, long bodies that typically measure 10-25 mm in length. Hornets have stockier, wider bodies that are larger overall. Worker hornets range from 18-25 mm long, while queens can grow up to 35 mm long.
In general, if you see a large insect buzzing around that is over 25 mm long, it is likely a hornet rather than a wasp.
Looking closely at the insect’s face can also help differentiate wasps from hornets.
Wasps have small, narrow heads with sizable mandibles used for chewing. Their faces tend to have a smooth, sleek appearance.
Hornets have broader heads and smaller mandibles. Their compound eyes are distinctly large and wrap around the sides of the head. The back of a hornet’s head also has a characteristic dotted or striped pattern.
The body shape of wasps and hornets has some subtle but distinguishing features.
Wasps have slender, cylindrical bodies with a pinched or narrowed waist segment. Their abdomen is elongate and rounds toward the tip.
Hornets have a stockier, more squared-off body shape. Their abdomen is shorter and more broad compared to wasps. Hornets’ abdomens are rounded at the base rather than the tip.
The legs of wasps and hornets also differ slightly in their proportions.
Wasp legs are relatively long and slender. Their hind legs in particular are elongated for jumping.
Hornet legs are more robust and wider in proportion to their bodies. Their hind legs are shorter than those of wasps.
Since both wasps and hornets can sting, you may not want to look too closely at the stinger. But the stinger can be a helpful identifying feature if you can observe it safely.
Wasps have a smooth, straight stinger that protrudes directly out from the tip of the abdomen.
Hornets have a stinger that is hooked downward. The stinger is tucked under the abdomen, encased in a sheath until the hornet is ready to attack.
The nests built by wasps and hornets also differ in size, shape and location.
Wasps construct small, uncovered nests in trees, shrubs, or on buildings. The nest is built from chewed wood fiber and is a single comb of exposed cells.
Hornets build large, enclosed paper nests. Their nests have multiple combs enclosed in a papery envelope, with an entrance hole at the bottom. Hornets often build aerial nests in trees or under eaves.
If you can locate the insect’s nest without disturbing it, the structure can provide clues as to whether you are dealing with a wasp or hornet colony.
Observing the insect’s flight patterns and foraging behaviors can also help distinguish between wasps and hornets.
Wasps fly erratically in a zigzag pattern, whereas hornets fly more steadily in a straight path. Wasps are also less aggressive, focusing on nectar-gathering rather than scavenging like hornets.
Hornets forage for dead insects and other sources of protein to feed their large colonies. They are very defensive around their nests and food sources.
The typical color pattern of bold yellow and black stripes lends wasps an almost cartoonish appearance. But the stripes are quite variable, with some interrupted patterns or solid darker colors like brown.
Hornets have more contrasting color patterns of intense yellow and deep black. There is often a sharp demarcation between the pale and dark regions of the abdomen.
Some hornets may also have extensive white or orange facial markings that are absent on wasps.
The antennae of wasps and hornets have subtle structural differences.
Wasp antennae have twelve segments. The antennae are straight and relatively short compared to the wasp’s body.
Hornets also have twelve-segmented antennae. But their antennae are longer with a hooked bend near the tip. This gives hornet antennae a characteristic elbowed shape.
When at rest with wings folded, hornets and wasps appear practically identical. But some small differences are visible in their wings.
Wasp wings are narrower with longer cells. When open, the wings are relatively elongated and fold into distinct creases.
Hornet wing cells are shorter and broader. Their wings are stockier in proportion to the wider body. When open, the wings have fewer obvious folds.
The mouthparts of wasps and hornets have adapted to their particular feeding strategies.
Wasps have large mandibles for chewing wood and other plant fibers to construct nests and process food.
Hornets have smaller mandibles and larger maxillae (accessory mouthparts) for handling insect prey.
So hornets have more powerful mouthparts for capturing and demolishing insect prey, while wasps have tools better suited for nest building and nectar feeding.
The thorax is the body segment where the insect’s legs and wings are attached. Several features of the thorax can also distinguish wasps from hornets.
Wasps have a slender thorax consistent with their elongated body shape. The thorax has a pinched, constricted look.
Hornets have a more robust thorax that is almost as wide as the head and abdomen. The thorax appears stocky rather than constricted.
Additionally, the wings of hornets attach lower on the thorax, giving the appearance of shorter legs.
The insect’s abdomen offers several clear points of distinction between wasps and hornets.
Wasps have a long, narrow abdomen that is widest near the thorax and tapers toward the tip. The tip is rounded.
Hornets have a shorter, wider abdomen that is broadest in the middle and more oval-shaped rather than tapering. The base of the abdomen is rounded.
Hornets also have visible constrictions between abdominal segments that better define each section. Wasps have a more uniformly narrow abdomen.
Here is a helpful size comparison of two common hornet and wasp species found in North America:
|European paper wasp
As you can see, hornets tend to be significantly larger than wasps of comparable common species.
Color Pattern Comparison
Here is a visual comparison of the typical color patterns of hornets versus wasps:
|Bold yellow and black stripes
|Muted yellow stripes, sometimes interrupted
|Sharp demarcation between pale and dark regions
|Gradual transitions between pale and dark regions
|Often extensive white or orange facial markings
|Minimal facial markings, predominantly black and yellow
Hornets have more contrasting colors with well-defined boundaries. Wasps have more variations of muted colors that blend together.
Here are the key differences between wasp and hornet stingers:
|Straight and smooth
|Hooked and barbed
|Protrudes directly from tip of abdomen
|Tucked under abdomen in sheath
|Repeated stinging possible
|Stinger detaches after one sting
The stinger itself provides some clear distinguishing features when observing a wasp versus hornet.
Here is an overview of the key differences between wasp and hornet nest structures:
|Small, single comb structure
|Large enclosed structure with multiple combs
|Enclosed in papery envelope
|Built from chewed wood fibers
|Constructed from weathered wood and plant fibers
|Aerial or in cavities
|Attached to branches or overhangs
The nest itself provides very clear visual clues to distinguish between wasp and hornet colonies.
Here are some key behavioral differences that can help differentiate wasps from hornets:
|Zigzag, fluttering flight
|Steady, straight flight
|Forage for nectar and plant products
|Scavenge for dead insects and other protein
|Less aggressive temperament
|Very defensive around nest
|Will repeatedly sting if threatened
|Sting once then disengage
Observing how the insect flies, feeds, and defends itself can provide clues to whether it is a wasp or hornet.
Key Identification Points
Here is a summary of the key physical differences between wasps and hornets:
|10-25 mm long
|18-35 mm long
|Slender, narrow bodies
|Robust, wider bodies
|Smooth, long faces
|Shorter faces with large eyes
|Elongate, tapered abdomen
|Stockier oval-shaped abdomen
|Long, thin legs
|Shorter, wider legs
|Erratic, zigzag flight
|Steady, straight flight
Keeping these physical and behavioral differences in mind can help you reliably determine wasp vs hornet identity.
Although they appear quite similar at first glance, wasps and hornets have distinct structural and behavioral characteristics. Size, body shape, faces, stingers, wings, legs, antennae, and nest architecture provide clues to differentiate the two insects. Color patterns, foraging, and flight habits also distinguish them. Noticing subtleties like proportions, textures, and shapes makes positive identification much easier. With knowledge of these variances, you can confidently discern wasps from hornets.