honey bee threats predators

Italian mob takes down a wasp

Photo © Craig Scott.

Photo © Craig Scott.

Although I can’t actually see the victim, I’m taking the photographer’s word on it: inside this marauding ball of bees is a bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata.

Sometimes timing is everything, and I was just lining up a little pile of bald-faced bodies here in Washington when this photo arrived from Craig Scott in Delaware. Craig says:

We’ve seen a few bald-faced hornets flying off with bees recently but this one ran into the Italian mob. Took about a half hour, but in the end the wasp lost. Not sure if they stung her to death or used the heat treatment. No bees died from what we could see.

The ones on my patio where killed by me—not my bees. After a number of years with very few bald-faced hornets, I see them everywhere this year. Conversely, I see almost no regular yellowjackets. I’ve spent several years going after yellowjacket queens, and since nature abhors a vacuum, the bald-faced hornets have returned with a vengeance.

What do these wasps mean to a beekeeper? Like other wasps, bald-faced hornets feed insects to their young. They prefer live prey and will often snatch it right out of the air. Honey bees are delicious (apparently) and bald-faced hornets are often seen circling the hives, waiting for an opportunity.

Some years ago I witnessed a honey bee hive that was being routed by yellowjackets. Below the hive, a hoard of bald-faced hornets picked off struggling bees and wasps that were tussling on the ground. Although I don’t consider the bald-faced hornet to be a big threat to a hive, a determined wasp will certainly take as many bees as it can get. However, as you can see above, a healthy honey bee colony can defend itself. Once the bees get angry, watch out.

Bald-faced hornets are not really hornets but a species of yellowjacket. They are seldom called yellowjackets because they are not yellow, so they are known by various names including white-faced hornet, white-tailed hornet, or blackjacket—none of which are particularly apt since they are not hornets and a blackjacket is an entirely different species (Vespula consobrina).

Their life cycle is very similar to other yellowjackets and to bumble bees. Queens and drones emerge in late fall, mate, and the queen overwinters in a protected place. Come spring, the female begins a nest, cares for the first batch of workers, and then stays in the nest to lay more eggs while the workers mind the nursery, forage, and defend. Except for new queens, the colony dies off as winter weather arrives.

The nests, constructed in trees and bushes, are often described as football shaped (that would be an American football). The wasps chew wood fibers to make a pulp for nest building, and they forage for nectar and live insects to feed the young. Colonies range from 100 to about 650 individuals, with an average of about 400.

Thanks, Craig, for exposing the mob.


Bald-faced hornets at nest entrance. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Bald-faced hornets at nest entrance. Wikimedia Commons photo.


  • I believe that bald-faced hornets are the most aggressive of the stinging insects when defending their nest. Usually they quickly attack any observers within 6′ of their nest. I learned this when observing their beautiful nest in a neighbor’s back yard last fall. :^)

  • Rusty,

    The yellowjacket hornets have been behaving themselves and doing a good job cleaning up the dead bees in front of the hives. Every once it awhile I will find a dead yellowjacket amongst the dead bees. I recently took a closer look at the hornet and found a honeybee sting had dispatched the wasp. I’ll send you an email with the photo attached. -Bill

  • I moved a colony the other day and removed the wasp screen I used to move them and installed a mouse guard! It wasn’t until messing around in front of the hive that I got stung in the face (2nd sting all season wearing no protection) that I noticed bees unable to fly, yet trying so hard! That’s when I noticed the yellowjackets attacking my girls on the ground! A jacket would hit one bee, grapple for a moment, and hit another bee struggling to fly! In 15 minutes observation time I saw four bees bodies carted off! These jackets were scrawny compared to the ones 11 miles away in the yard I moved them from! I know there is a difference between ground based jackets and those housed aloft, but I’ve never seen so many! Swarms at the feet, three inches off the grass! I always supply wasp traps around my vertically challenged little women but I’m pretty pissed off now! Wasn’t there some disease that leaves them unable to fly other than deformed wing or just being flown out from life?

    I also have a pic of what I thought was a bee collecting chewed wood! When magnified it looks like a larvae (dark-eyed but white with a red dash on it like varroa). I frequently take pictures with my cell and magnify them seeing much better than with my naked eye! I have never seen ONE mite on my girls! I’ve seen a couple on my sbb after powdered sugar treatments but that’s it! Any advice from yourself or your excellent readers would be greatly appreciated!

  • I’ve read that yellow jackets are the preferred food of bald-faced hornets. This year—as opposed to last, which was a nightmare—I, too, have seen very few yellow jackets around my hive. And only one bald-faced hornet. Still, I keep a loaded spray bottle of dawn liquid up by the hive.

  • Just depends on the time of year and what the Baldies get used to over the season, I believe. My first experience with them was favorable as they bounced off my chest when I mowed within two feet of a large nest in a Holly tree. No stings, no chasing. We’d been mowing right up to them all summer.

    I have also climbed into a tree and had them fly around me when I was moving the branch the nest was attached to 6″ away. I went down the tree and they flying around me stopped.

    And I have had many a Bald Face hornet pick a fly off a cow I was milking, often after trying to pick one off me.

    Now Yellow Jackets in August — that’s been painful for me. Interesting how experiences can be so different with these little critters 🙂

  • It must be timing, because I remember cutting down a Scot’s Broom plant and watching a BFH nest fall with it. I jumped back about 10 feet, but they just placidly kept working as if a hive sideways on the ground was an everyday occurrence. Later my sister-in-law was stung by a different nest in the same broom field, but only by blindly backing right into it. I’ll take BFH over the punch-in-the-face ground-nesting yellowjackets anyday.

  • I think I have a bit of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in my view of yellow jackets and bald face hornets. I absolutely am impressed with the markings and coloration of these insects and their exposed hives are a wonder of form. Nifty. Neat. Wow.

    Then there is the snarling part of me that comes out when they show up at the hives or contesting ownership of a sandwich.

    Most of the time I consider myself at war with both. I can admire them and respect them .. and still prefer them ‘reduced’. Even in the worst of times here, I feel pretty good about the local population… it isn’t like THIS!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYk9WU0LQSc (central Florida nest.)


    Kent, WA

  • My issue, consistently, has been European hornets. I’ve set up my traps again and have been watching the dead numbers climb slowly. Yellow jackets were also an issue, but this year, not so much.

  • Our two hives have been under siege from hornets for the past month. I don’t remember having an issue like this in the past. It has been relentless, but I think we have them on the run or the fly. 😉 The only things I could think of to help them was to reduce the entrance and put out hornet traps, and I contacted a long-time beekeeper from my club to see if he knew of any other things I could do to help my hives. Those were the only things he knew of too. So far, the hornet traps have caught 0 hornets. I may need to find better “bait”.

    Not only are the European hornets attempting to breach our sweet, peaceful honeybee hives, but so are Bald-Faced Hornets. It’s been a battle ground out in our tiny two-hive apiary- terrifying and violent at times. The hornets are aggressive and brash, and land right on the hive stand – to which the girls have responded in-kind. We have found many dead hornets on the ground around the hives, having met with death by suffocation/cooking.

    If I knew where the hornet nests were I’d take care of them once and for all, but we are surrounded by woods and my efforts are better spent finding ways to fortify the beehive defenses. We’ve been fortunate so far, we’ve only had a few honeybee casualties- no hive breaches so far.

    Before I could discern how best to help my girls, I had to observe the enemy. The hornets hover around the hives, looking for anything that looks like it could be an opening into the inner sanctum. I watched them check out anything that was dark, including the vent box holes – so I made a note to myself to not use dark tape or coverings. So, I set out to obscure the hive entrance and the vent box holes. I cut out strips of screen and used white duct tape to secure them over the vent box holes, being careful not to close off the much needed ventilation holes. I then cut strips of L-shaped metal carpet striping used on stairs, covered them in white duct tape and put them over the entrances, so that they have a covered walkway and still have full use of their entrance and used folded over white duct tape (so there was no sticky side) to cover up some of the gap between cover and the edge of the bottom board – leaving only enough room for bees to go through and not anything larger. So far, obscuring the vent holes and covering the entrances in this way seems to be helping the bees defend their homes, and persuade the hornets to leave more quickly since they can’t find anywhere to access their new-found food source. I can only imagine how the bees are feeling – shell-shocked, on edge, stressed-out – just plain exhausted! I did not want them to get to the point of giving up and stop fighting for their homes. The more I can help them batten down the hatches, the better it is for their morale and the more likely they will continue to fight for their home. I can already see a difference in their behavior – they are not acting as skittish, there are fewer bees staying outside the entrance cover to guard, the normal day-to-day activities of foraging and cleaning have resumed.

    I had to reduce the “entrance” to one hive even more on Thursday (8/28) and since then I’ve seen fewer and fewer hornets coming after the hives. It’s been mostly peaceful out there again – save for the occasional fly-by.

    I hope that this information is helpful to those who are also having a hornet issue. It’s not enough to reduce the entrance, you need to obscure it, make sure that there’s nothing a hornet can even perceive as an entrance that it can breach. They fly around the hives looking for dark areas – things that look like a hole they can get into. The honeybees adapted quickly to the new way of entering their home, and have continued to go about their business of foraging and cleaning out the hive without a problem.

    I’ve had their entrances obscured for nearly a month now and I’ve seen no dead hornets in front of the hives, and I’ve not seen bee casualties. I’ve seen the hornets fly around look for some way in and not finding one fly off. Some are a little bolder and land on the hive stand or the hive, but none have been able to find a way in.

    • Cathi,

      That is quite a story. The only thing I might suggest is robbing screens. They are meant for deterring honey bee robbers, but they work well for all kinds of winged predators. You might try a couple next time around.

      • Yes, I thought about using those, but since I didn’t know how long I’d have to battle hornets I didn’t want to make it even more difficult for them to clean our their hives. They seem to be able to clean out their hives quite easily this way, and their entrances are wide open underneath the metal cover. I see robber screens as a short-term thing – deter something for a few days until it gives up. I could see the hornets were not going to give up easily and that it would probably be a long battle. The bees adapted very quickly to their new entrances, and it has not impaired mobility, work, or brood raising since after a month I’m seeing very healthy playtimes from both hives. I listen to the hives on a regular basis to learn their sounds, and at the beginning of the siege their sounds were definitely angry. A few days after I put the hornet-evading entrance covers on, the sounds inside the hive were definitely calmer – back to normal.

        • Cathi,

          I’m glad to hear your hornet system was a success. I routinely use the robbing screens on my weaker hives at the first sign of wasp/hornet trouble. I leave them on during the autumn months so they take care of everything that might want to invade. Never had a problem with them.

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