Hornets and hoverflies

by Richard Jones

I'm called to the end of the garden by the 10-year-old. "Daddy, is that a hornet?" she asks, pointing to a big brown insect sitting on a leaf near the swing.

Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)I'm called to the end of the garden by the 10-year-old. "Daddy, is that a hornet?" she asks, pointing to a big brown insect sitting on a leaf near the swing. What a wonderful thing if it is, I think. But no, it's not a hornet, it's a hornet-mimicking hoverfly.

This has got to be one of my favourite insects. Despite its size (one of Britain's largest flies), it has no common name, apart from the rather inadequate 'belted hoverfly' - a back translation from its Latin name Volucella zonaria.

The lack of any English name is not really surprising, because 100 years ago this insect was virtually unknown in Britain. An important monograph on hoverflies, published in 1902, reported only two museum specimens 'reputed' to have been found here. Then, during the 1940s and 1950s, there was a series of sightings of this spectacular insect, which, as time went on, became more frequent.

Most black and yellow wasp-like hoverflies bear aphid-eating larvae so beloved of gardeners. Volucella larvae have a much more exotic life; they scavenge in wasp nests and eat all the left-over bits of dead insects brought back by the wasps to feed their own brood.

Volucella zonaria is now well established, at least in southern England. The same, or another one, came back later to buzz lazily around the garden. And despite my reassurances, it was still eyed very suspiciously by the girls.

Discuss this blog post

Talkback: Hornets and hoverflies
Your comment will appear after a quick registration step

Gardeners' World Web User 28/08/2008 at 15:57

Are there more Hornets about? I have killed one last year in the house and shooed one out this year. I am 72 and never saw one in UK before. My helper Harry age 5 is curious.

Gardeners' World Web User 29/08/2008 at 12:23

Reply to captrjslog. Yes, hornets are getting more common and more widespread. They are mainly woodland creatures and the centres of their UK distribution used to be the New Forest, the West Country and the Shires between Bath and London. There used to be many gaps in the recording maps around south-east England, London, East Anglia and the Midlands. However, in the last 20 years hornets have spread to areas in which they used never to occur. I was really thrilled to see one in Dulwich a year or so ago and found the disused nest in a tree hollow. Despite their ill-deserved reputation, hornets are more docile and more secretive than the other social wasps. They are magnificent creatures and are a wonder to watch. Harry is lucky, I had to wait until I was 45 before I saw one.

Gardeners' World Web User 31/08/2008 at 19:13

Hornets that I believe were a rarety are now rife in the area of East Sussex where I live. Three years ago I had a nest in the low eaves over the back door and every summer I see quite a few each day. They can be quite intimidating when they enter the house although they are not as aggressive as the wasp. To date I have never had any inclination to kill one, if they enter the house just open a few windows and doors but keep an eye on them because they seem to like dark gaps and holes to crawl into, they will soon find their own way out.

Gardeners' World Web User 09/09/2008 at 21:39

I first came across both hornets & Volucella zonaria on Wimbledon Common in 1946. I have come across hornets quite a number of times since but in 2008 actually saw both again in my Cambridge garden. According to `wildlfe Discovery Guide` zonaria now has an English name "The Belted Hoverfly." A friend of mine in France was recently badly stung by the Asiatic hornet Volucella velutina, a recent import, which may well soon arrive in UK and whose chief occupation is killing honeybees. It should be looked out for and not confused with our English hornet.

Gardeners' World Web User 30/09/2008 at 15:54

We live quite close to the New Forest and nearly every year we have a hornet nest somewhere around. They seem to be hugely attracted by light which makes letting the dogs out at night a bit scary and something to be undertaken with caution! I think they are dying off at this time of year and, a bit alarmingly, have been finding their way into the bathroom via I'm not sure what. You don't want to wander in there in the dark with bare feet! They're magnificent to look at but I prefer them outside.

See more comments...