Yellowjackets vs Ground Hornets – What is the Difference?

All hornets and wasps look alike to the untrained eye. This may lead to some problems since not all wasps are equally as dangerous, as we’re about to see it today’s article. The topic – yellowjackets vs. ground hornets. What are the main differences between the 2 species, and what should you know about each of them?

Are Ground Hornets and Yellowjackets the Same?

No, although they are similar in many aspects. The confusion between the 2 stems from their similarities in appearance and the fact that many people use ‘wasp’ and ‘hornet’ interchangeably.

These 2 species differ taxonomically, although they belong to the same class, order, family, and subfamily. It’s the genus that makes the difference. Yellowjackets and other wasps belong to the Vespula or Dolichovespula genus, while ground hornets belong to the Vespa genus.

Difference in Appearance

There are also several other differences that we will discuss throughout the article, such as:

– Yellowjacket

It’s hard to find a more iconic insect than the yellowjacket. This common species comes with variations in appearance but will follow the same pattern. Yellowjackets display black and yellow bodies, where the yellow appears in stripes across the abdomen, covers the legs, and shows up around the eyes. Most wasps will have a black thorax and black antennae.

There are also exceptions from this rule, like the bald-faced hornet, which is also a wasp whose body mixes replaces the yellow with white. Other wasp species display red on their abdomen.

As a general rule, all wasps will display slightly different markings, identifying them as unique individuals. These markings are closely linked to their place and role in the colony, among other aspects.

The yellowjacket also has long, thin, and tight wings, growing at an angle from one another, which causes them to appear spread apart.

– Ground Hornet

The ground hornet is similar in appearance to the yellowjacket, with a few notable exceptions. While the hornet also displays the trademark striped body, its coloring is slightly different. The hornet has less or no black but instead mixes yellow with shades of red and ivory. Just like with the yellowjacket, the hornet can appear different depending on the subspecies and environment.

The European hornet is slightly different from the American and Australian ones in this sense. The European hornet, for instance, is more similar in appearance to the yellowjacket, displaying more black around the thorax, abdomen, and head. It will, however, showcase red-ish nuances on its legs, antennae, and around the eyes.

Difference in Size

Yellowjackets are rather small compared to hornets. They will typically only reach around 0.47 to 0.6 inches in size with the queen growing slightly larger, up to 0.75. Yellowjackets are the personification of the idea that you don’t need size to qualify as dangerous.

Ground hornets are significantly larger, capable of reaching around 1.5 inches on average. Some species of hornets can even go beyond that, up to 2.2 inches. This makes them huge compared to the more modest yellowjackets.

Difference in Diet

There are little-to-no differences in diet between the 2 species. Both yellowjackets and ground hornets consume sweet foods, primarily nectar, ripe fruits, and even sweet drinks consumed by humans.

The situation changes when it comes to larvae. Wasp and hornet larvae consume a lot of protein to boost their growth and fasten their transition into nymphs and, subsequently, adults. This forces adult wasps and hornets to hunt and kill other insects in their area, many of which rank as pests.

The adult insects will inject the prey with venom, then kill it masticate it with their powerful mandibles. The mastication process will turn the victims into mush, which they will carry to their nests to feed the larvae.

Adults are strictly herbivorous and will not consume other insects.

Difference in Nesting

Yellowjackets and ground hornets have different nesting and reproduction behaviors.


Yellowjackets live in colonies since they are eusocial creatures. The nest is aerial, built by a single queen during springtime. The queen will produce the first iterations of the nest from a paper-like substance obtained from mixing wood fibers with saliva. The result is a fairly resilient and flexible structure that the first generation of wasps will expand and fortify.

Generally speaking, most wasp nests only last for a season since wasps can’t survive the winter. Only the queen wasp will hibernate through the winter to set the foundation of the future colony.

Your typical wasp nest can reach the size of a basketball and consist of several hundred cells. Then you have super nests that can become massive, counting 15,000 cells or more and extremes capable of reaching over 1 million cells. The latter is only possible in mild winters, allowing the colony to survive the cold season and expand. Southern parts of the US fall into this category.

Ground Hornet

As the name suggests, the ground hornet will build its nest in underground burrows. Only the females will participate in the work, using their front legs to dig in soft, sandy soil up to depths of 50 inches. The burrows will often have intricate structures with one or more access points.

Left unchecked, they can expand fast, allowing the hornets to multiply out of sight.

On another note, the ground hornet lives in rather modest colonies that will only grow out of proportion in the wild. Colonies located near human settlements have shorter lifespans for obvious reasons.

Difference in Sting

Ground hornets and yellowjackets have similar defense mechanisms and they will protect themselves and the colony with their stings if needed.

– Yellowjackets

These wasps have a nasty sting, paired with an aggressive and territorial attitude. This makes them unable to coexist with humans or any other animal for that matter. Only the females will sting and will do everything to protect the colony.

Unlike bees who lose their stinger after one attack (and die as a result), female wasps can sting multiple times, injecting more venom than a regular honeybee. The pain is instant, paired with a burning sensation that will only begin to wear off 1-2 hours after the sting. The aftereffects, however, may go on for days.

You will experience swelling and redness around the affected area for hours, including sensations like itching and warmth.

An important note – scratching the site of the sting will cause the venom to spread even more and cause the symptoms to last longer. Don’t scratch!

– Ground Hornets

Ground hornets are less dangerous in this sense. The sting is less painful, and the symptoms tend to wear off faster than in the case of the yellowjackets. You may experience inflammation, warmth, pain, and itching at the site, along with occasional hives.

Generally speaking, wasps and hornet stings are similar and will only inflict mild symptoms that will go away on their own. However, 3 problems that I would like to mention three problems in relation to this topic.

  1. Allergic reactions – Many people show an increased sensitivity to wasp and hornet venom, causing them to experience symptoms like vomiting, sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing, swelling in the throat, etc. These require immediate medical assistance.
  2. Anaphylaxis – Anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, is an exaggerated reaction to insect venom that may become fatal. The symptoms include severe facial swelling, shock, low pulse, abdominal pain, confusion, nausea, swelling in the mouth and throat, etc. Less than 10% of wasp and hornet victims will experience severe allergic reactions, and around 100 will die every year as a result.
  3. Hive mind – Eusocial insects like wasps and hornets have developed a social behavior to help them protect the colony. This is activated via the alert pheromones that the insects will produce when detecting a threat. The result is grim – hundreds or thousands of insects will swarm the intruder and overwhelm the victim with hundreds of stings. The excess venom may trigger anaphylactic shock and lead to complications even in healthy human adults.

These are 3 potent reasons why you should avoid wasps and hornet nests and avoid handling them yourself. Call a professional to avoid unpleasant situations like, for instance, dying.

Do Hornets Kill Yellowjackets?

They don’t usually do that, but they could. Ground hornets and yellowjackets are both territorial creatures and may attack one another in some cases. Attacks are, however, rare, since the 2 species don’t usually nest next to one another.

In case of a conflict, the hornet will most likely win thanks to its size and extra power.


Hornets and yellow rank as pests in some areas, primarily due to their dangerous swarming behavior and territorial instincts. That being said, they are also beneficial for their role in controlling the populations of pest insects and contributing to flower pollination.

As an interesting mention, yellowjackets aren’t particularly aggressive and will prefer to flee from your presence as solitary individuals. However, the situation will change fast if the insect you’ve spotted is near its nest.

Wasps   Updated: January 19, 2022
avatar Welcome to Insectic, a blog to learn about insects and bugs. I'm Richard, and I've created this website to share my experience, knowledge, and passion with others.

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