Feeling rather waspish

This wood wasp in the entrance to a bird box gives you an idea of how big they are

Wood wasps had made their nest in a bird box attached to the house

I was at a lovely country cottage that’s for sale in Ryedale recently, just doing some final checks before the potential buyers arrived, when I heard what sounded like the low hum of a Lancaster bomber.

I glanced towards the closed patio doors from where it was coming and, to my horror, saw that a giant wasp had found its way inside. The huge creature, which I concluded had escaped from Jurassic Park, was hovering and swooping ominously about.

Its considerable size convinced me it was a hornet, for what other buzzing yellow and black thing was that big? I knew hornets were not common up north, but couldn’t fathom what else it might be. I bravely managed to dodge past it to open the patio doors and, much to my relief, it lumbered out into the open air just as the viewers arrived.

I’ve always been afraid of wasps, and have had an even greater fear of hornets since I went to France as a teenager. The farmhouse I stayed in was plagued with terrifying striped buzzing beasts, which dwarfed anything I had ever seen back home in England. I was never stung by one, but the way the family insisted on the windows being shut before it got dark and the way they left a big bright light on outside the barn to divert them away from the house, made me think there must have been some reason to fear them. I assumed they must be hornets, and determined to stay as far away from them as humanly possible.

As I showed the couple around the cottage, I extolled the charms of the spacious kitchen and delightful sitting room, and then suggested we go and see the first floor. As we climbed the stairs, I froze. There, gliding round the landing light like a flock of hungry pterodactyls, were three or four more of the dreaded things.

Like the consummate professional that I am, I yelped, “Argghh!” before scuttling on up the rest of the steps, sashaying around them at the top, then hurrying into the nearest bedroom. The viewers, bizarrely, paid little attention to them (although I may have seen them raise an eyebrow or two towards me).

After the viewing, the owner of the house, a self-confessed nature lover, came back and when I suggested that she might need to get pest control in, she laughed. She explained that they were not hornets at all, but wood wasps and they were absolutely harmless. She led me to the side of the house to a set of bird boxes on the wall. The wasps had made a nest inside one of them and were peacefully coming and going, minding their own business. It is likely that the viewers, who were used to living in the countryside, knew exactly what they were. 

How did I not know about the wood wasp before? I grew up in the country too, but don’t recall coming across it. I’m sure if I had, my dad would have explained what it was. I have a feeling that those I saw in France were probably wood wasps too.

The wood wasp, also known as the giant horntail, does look terrifying, but its merely its armour against predators. It has a similar black and yellow striped body to the common wasp, but is more than double the size. Its spiked tail can be mistaken for a stinger, and the female has an extra long black spike at the end of her body, which looks lethal, but is in fact an ovipositor, a tube that enables her to penetrate wood and lay her eggs inside. These wasps are very docile, do not sting and, unlike their carnivorous doppelgängers, don’t eat other insects, preferring to dine on wood, especially pine.

Hornets are still rarely seen here in the north, and are distinguishable from the common wasp by their large size and chunkier body which, unlike wasps, is not pinched at the waist. While wasps generally have a black head, upper body and yellow legs, a hornet has lighter copper brown head, upper body and legs. Another little-known fact is that they are not likely to be aggressive unless their nest is being threatened.

So now, if ever I do come across one, I’ll just calmly walk on by. Or maybe I’ll run.

Yes, I’ll definitely still run.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaughter

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 24th and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 22nd August 2022

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