Why Hornets Matter in Ecosystems



Written by Katie Piercy

Hornets are type of wasp and therefore carry all the negative associations of these misunderstood insects. Added to this hornets are often larger, with vicious looking stingers. It’s therefore not surprising that most people consider them to be a dangerous and unwelcome pest.

However, hornets don’t deserve their vicious reputation, largely ignoring humans unless threatened. As well as being relatively mild-mannered, hornets also have important ecological roles to play, from keeping other pest species in check, to helping dispose of waste.

Hornets Predation on Pest Insects

Hornets are efficient predators, and eat a large number of other insects and creepy-crawlies. During the spring and summer most hornets will be continuously heading out to pick up a tasty take-away.

With their handy wings and venomous stings they can take down species as big or larger than them, stinging their prey to paralyze or kill them, then returning to their nest with their prize.

Hornets aren’t fussy in what they eat and will take advantage of whatever they come across. Caterpillars, spiders and even dragonflies can end up as a hornet’s dinner if they aren’t careful.

Also read: What Eats Caterpillars? (A List of its Enemies)

Controlling Pest Populations and Maintaining Balance

As with many predators, their presence in our ecosystems can ensure that prey species numbers don’t get out of control. This can be particularly important for species that act as agricultural pests, where large numbers can damage crops.

Because they don’t target particular species, hornets are more likely to predate anything that is common, allowing struggling species to recover and knocking back those that have started to take over.

Carrion Disposal and Nutrient Cycling

As well as actively hunting for food, hornets will also spend part of the year foraging for easy leftovers. Dead animals, rotting fruit and even food waste, are all welcome additions to their diets. These easy pickings tend to be what they look for during autumn, when cooler weather, and less food availability means they want an easy meal rather than expending energy on hunting.

By feeding on carrion and decomposing plant matter, hornets help to get rid of potentially harmful waste. Rotting bodies and food, can cause a spread of disease. By gobbling up whatever they can, they help reduce the chance of these diseases spreading.

As well as reducing the likelihood of disease spreading, feeding on this waste helps to break it down. As the hornets digest and excrete whatever they’ve eaten, they make the nutrients within it much more available for plants, helping to cycle nutrients through the natural environment.

Also read: How & What do Cicadas Eat? (Eating Habits Explained)

Hornet Pollination vs. Other Pollinator Species

Pollinator SpeciesPollination EffectivenessPrimary Pollen CarriersFloral Preferences
HoneybeesHighly effectiveBody and leg hairsFlowers with sweet nectar
BumblebeesEfficient pollinatorsHairy bodiesWide range of flowering plants
ButterfliesVariable effectivenessLong proboscisBrightly colored, scented flowers
HornetsSurprisingly effectiveHairy bodiesVarious flowering plants
Birds (e.g., hummingbirds)Effective for certain flowersLong bills and tonguesTubular, red or orange flowers
Table 1: Pollinator Species and Their Pollination Effectiveness

While bees get all the credit as pollinators, there are actually a wide range of animals that carry out this role. Hornets are some of the less known pollinators, travelling to flowers to feed on pollen and nectar, and then transferring some of that pollen to other flowers, helping to pollinate them.

Like many pollinators, hornets aren’t hugely fussy about what flowers they visit. Mostly they will simply be close to where the hornet is hunting or foraging. Flowers like ivy, thistles and daisies can all potentially be visited.

One of the reasons bees are such good pollinators is that they are covered in fur, that helps pick up and trap the pollen. Wasps and hornets are less hairy, and therefore tend to trap less pollen. They also visit less flowers than bees do, so have less of a chance to spread pollen between plants.

Also read: Do Bees Eat Pollen? What & How Often do They Actually Eat?

How Hornets Fit into Nature’s Food Chain

Hornets are predators, and will sit above most insects and creepy-crawlies in the food web. However, they are also preyed on themselves, and will be eaten by some birds and mammals.

Their Nesting Behaviours

Hornets are eusocial, living in nests with others that are closely related. Like bees, hornets have a queen, who starts building the nest and lays the first eggs to create her initial workforce. Once these workers have hatched, they will continue to build the nest and raise the next generation.

The nest will thrive throughout the summer and into the autumn, but come winter the inhabitants will have died, only the young queens surviving to ground a nest the following year.

Also read: What Happens with Hornets in Winter?

Dealing with Hornets

Hornets are relatively uninterested in humans most of the time, however they will attack if they or their nest are threatened. Usually this happens if they nest somewhere humans need to access, such as within an attic.

While there may be occasions when nests need to be destroyed, this should always be the last resort. With the nests inhabitants dying off in the winter, it will be safe to dispose of at that point. In the meantime the area they are nesting in should be avoided.

Hornet Stings and Safety Precautions

Wash the Sting SiteClean the affected area with soap and water to reduce the risk of infection.
Remove StingerUse a credit card or similar object to scrape away the stinger without squeezing it.
Apply Cold CompressApply a cold pack or clean cloth with cold water to reduce pain and swelling.
Pain ReliefOver-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen may help alleviate discomfort.
Seek Medical AttentionIf allergic reactions occur, such as difficulty breathing or severe swelling, seek immediate medical help.
Table 2: Hornet Sting First Aid and Safety Measures

Hornet stings are largely not dangerous to humans unless they are allergic. In most cases it will cause mild discomfort that will fade over time. Being stung by a large number of hornets at once can however be dangerous, as the body reacts to the large amount of poison being administered.

If a nest needs to be removed it’s always best to contact a professional, as hornets will attack those that they see as a threat to their home.

Also read: What to do if You’re Stung by a Bee (& How to Get Sting Out)?


As with all animals their importance and impact on the nature environment can’t be underestimated. From controlling pests to pollinating plants, to acting as natural recyclers, their place within our ecosystem should be respected.

It’s often easy to villainize those animals who aren’t of obvious use to us, however, each creature has its place, and we remove them at our own peril.


Katie Piercy

Katie Piercy, a conservation industry veteran with a diverse career, has worked in various environments and with different animals for over a decade. In the UK, she reared and released corncrake chicks, chased hen harriers, and restored peatland. She has also gained international experience, counting macaws in Peru, surveying freshwater springs in Germany, and raising kiwi chicks in New Zealand.

Meadows have always captivated her, and she has often provided advice and assistance in managing these habitats. From surveying snake's head fritillary in Wiltshire to monitoring butterfly species in Norfolk, Katie's dedication extends even to her own front garden, where she has created a mini meadow to support wild bees and other pollinators.

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