Since their arrival in the United States in 2019, Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia) have received much attention in the media. They’re big, aggressive insects with an appetite for honey bees, causing headaches for local beekeepers.
While you’re unlikely to get these two insects mixed up, knowing their similarities and differences is helpful. This guide provides an essential comparison of honey bees and Asian giant hornets.
What is the difference between honey bees and Asian giant hornets?
Honey bees are smaller herbivorous insects that produce excess honey and usually only sting once before dying. Asian giant hornets are omnivores, measuring roughly four times the size of honey bees, sting repeatedly, and are highly predatory.
Honey bees vary in color depending on the breed but are typically light brown with yellow bands. They have fat bodies with stripes and a coat of fuzz, measuring a little over half an inch in length.
Asian giant hornets are much larger insects, measuring 1.5-2 inches long. They have large black eyes, a yellowish-orange head, and a black or brown body with yellow stripes.
Unlike hornets, the honey bee has pockets on its legs for carrying pollen. As Asian giant hornets don’t make honey, they have no reason to collect pollen.
The hornet has a narrow gap that separates the thorax from the abdomen, known as a petiole. Honey bees also have a belly and thorax but don’t have the thin joining section.
The honey bee lives on every continent where there’s beekeeping. That means Antarctica is the only place you won’t find them busily pollinating flowers.
Asian giant hornets are native to South and East Asia, preferring subtropical and temperate climates. They have recently been spotted in Europe and parts of North America.
Hornets prosper in areas with high rainfall, mild winters, and warm summers but won’t tolerate extreme heat.
3. Eating habits
Honey bees are herbivores that enjoy a diet of nectar and pollen from flowers. They also eat honey stores when foraging is difficult. Bee brood is initially fed royal jelly before moving onto a honey diet.
During food shortages, beekeepers may feed their colony sugar syrup, sugar, or pollen supplements.
Asian giant hornet queens feed their developing brood tree sap and parts of spiders. Once the workers are old enough to forage, they search for sap, fruit, and large insects like wasps, spiders, and beetles.
Asian wasps are also notorious for hawking honey bees and eating them. They may also mash up their unfortunate victims before returning them to their brood.
Related reading: How do leafcutter and honey bees compare?
4. Aggression levels
Honey bees are typically docile insects that go about their day foraging and building their colony. They may display aggression when their hive is threatened.
The honey bee’s temperament varies depending on the breed. Africanized bees are highly aggressive, while Italian and Buckfast bees may be gentler. However, weather, disease, and foraging conditions impact a honey bee’s mood.
Asian giant hornets aggressively defend their nests when threatened. But they mostly go about their business if they’re given space. They don’t have the same “nuisance factor” as yellow jackets.
Tip: check out our honey bee vs. yellow jacket guide to learn more.
Unlike honey bees that spend their time foraging, hornets strategically target beehives, looking to kill the colony one insect at a time.
Check out this video of bees evicting a hornet from their hive:
Honey bees and Asian hornets both use stingers to deliver their venom. While getting stung by a honey bee is painful, a hornet attack is much more painful. Victims describe the experience as similar to getting stabbed with a hot metal pin.
Honey bees and hornets use their stinger to defend their hive if needed. However, hornets have a smooth stinger allowing them to repeatedly attack without dying. Honey bees have a barbed stinger, so they die after using it.
While honey bee venom may be the strongest, hornets release much larger quantities.
- Honey Bee: Their venom is more dangerous; only small amounts (2.8 mg/kg) can be lethal for small insects.
- Giant Hornet: Their poison is slightly less dangerous than the honey bee’s, with 4.1 mg/kg being a deadly dose.
- Stinger comparison: The length of an Asian giant hornet’s stinger is ¼” (6mm), while a honey bee’s is 0.05″ (1.5mm).
6. Social interaction
Honey bees and hornets have a caste system comprising workers, drones, and a queen.
Honey bees communicate constantly with one another using pheromones and techniques like the waggle dance. Each hive member has roles, working together to forage, build hives, nurse larvae, defend the hive, and more.
Asian giant hornets are also social insects that live together in hives. Like bees, they use pheromones to signal danger to their colony.
Hornets also release a pheromone during attacks on honey bee hives. They place a marker, signaling a worthwhile food source to other hornets.
Interesting read: What is the difference between honey bees and sweat bees?
7. Nesting habits
Honey bees nest above ground in safe, sheltered locations. They often build hives in tree hollows, gaps, and manufactured hives. The honey bee constructs its home with beeswax, building extensive comb sections for raising brood and storing food supplies.
Asian giant wasps enjoy living in forested or low mountainous areas, avoiding high elevations or plains. Unlike honey bees that live above ground, they dig or use pre-built tunnels that may extend 24 inches. A hornet colony may also nest in cavities, tree trunks, or rotting tree roots.
While honey bees use wax to make their comb, Asian giant wasp queens mix wood fibers and saliva to produce paper cells.
8. Hive population
A honey bee nest will expand rapidly if food sources and space allow. It quickly grows to a population of 20,000-80,000. If the colony gets too big for its home, half the hive swarms in search of a new home with more room to expand.
While honey bee colonies may stay in the same nest for years, Asian giant hornets build new nests yearly. Their colonies are much smaller, usually up to several hundred.
Bee hives always have one queen, the rest being workers and drones. Asian wasp nests rear hundreds of queens which overwinter until spring, then venture out to start new colonies.
Fun reading: Bumble bee vs honey bee – how do they compare?
Honey bees are vital for pollinating the world’s crops and other plants. Commercial farms and backyard gardens both rely on bees.
Asian giant hornets don’t produce resources like honey but are helpful in their native habitat. These giant wasps are a valuable food source for other animals like bears and birds. They also keep other bee populations strong through natural selection and may also help with pollination.
The Asian giant hornet has its place in native areas like Japan, Sri Lanka, and India; however, the ecological balance tips when they are introduced to new habitats. The destruction caused by these invasive pests far outweighs any benefit offered.
10. Winter habits
When winter arrives, honey bees huddle in one group to keep warm. They take turns on the outside of the huddle, which is much colder. Thanks to honey reserves, the bees will do little but sleep and eat during winter.
Asian giant hornet queens mate in late fall and overwinter under the soil. They emerge from hibernation in the spring, feeding on tree sap before seeking a suitable nesting site.
Comparison table: Asian giant hornet and honey bee
|Asian giant hornet||Honey bee|
|Scientific name||Vespa mandarinia||Apis mellifera|
|Other names||Northern giant hornet, Japanese giant hornet, murder hornet||Western honey bee, European honey bee|
|Appearance||Large black eyes, yellowish-orange head, black or brown body with yellow stripes||Yellow and brown bands|
|Adult length||Up to two inches||Just over a half inch|
|Distribution||Mostly Asia, but recent sightings in Europe and North America||All continents except Antarctica|
|Aggressiveness||Will defend their nest. Aggressively hunt other insects.||Ranges from docile to highly aggressive|
|Stings||Excruciating and venomous sting, the wasp can sting repeatedly||Painful and venomous sting, bee dies after attacking|
|Social interaction||Social insects||Social insects|
|Nesting habits||Smaller paper ground nests||Large beeswax hives above ground|
|Benefits||Play an important role maintaining ecological balance in their native habitat.||Essential pollinators, produce honey, wax, propolis, royal jelly.|
|Pollination||May offer some pollination benefit||Excellent pollinators|
|Winter habits||Queens hibernate on their own underground||Huddle together as a colony to survive winter|
Commonly asked questions
How do Asian giant hornets impact honey bees?
As the need for a protein-based diet increases, Asian giant hornets focus on honey bees. The female worker wasps typically hunt alone, waiting near the hive’s entrance to catch a single bee. They may decapitate the bee, then take it back to feed developing babies.
Are Asian giant hornets a concern for bees?
The Asian giant hornet is a significant concern for beekeepers. This pest can kill an entire colony within hours, especially when these wasps hunt in packs. Once all adult bees die, the wasps defend the hive, feasting on the developing larvae and pupae.
Can honey bees defend themselves against giant hornets?
The Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) has evolved a fascinating defense strategy for dealing with intruding hornets. They allow the large predator to enter their hive, then form a vibrating cluster around it. This method generates heat which cooks the hornet to death.
However, honey bees in countries like the United States haven’t developed this defense technique and are easy victims of oversized wasps.
Vespa velutina vs Vespa mandarinia
While both hornets are large social insects, Vespa mandarinia is bigger than the Vespa velutina and has a unique bright orange head. The Vespa mandarinia mostly build their nests in the ground, while Vespa velutina construct much larger nests that hang from tree branches.