Bald-Faced Hornets: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on January 16, 2023
5 min read

Bald-faced hornets are not true hornets. They're in the wasp family and are a species of black and white yellow jacket. The species gets its name from the black and white coloring on the front of its head and the tip of its abdomen. Its head is primarily white with black eyes. They range in size from 1/2 to 5/8 of an inch long, with the queen reaching 3/4 of an inch in length. 

Bald-faced hornets live in social colonies that can contain up to 400 workers by the end of summer, although the queen is the only member of the colony that survives the winter. In the spring, the queen finds a suitable location and builds a small nest where she raises sterile female offspring. The early offspring enlarge the nest, gather food, and take care of the future eggs, larvae, and pupae until they become adults. The queen's sole job then becomes laying eggs. 

During the fall, males and new queens are produced. The males leave the nest to mate, and the newly fertilized queens find places to hibernate until spring.  The original queen, the males, and the workers die off with the cold weather. The nest can't be reused, so hibernating young queens will begin the cycle again in the spring.

Bald-faced hornets are an easily identifiable species of yellow jacket. Unlike most other yellow jacket species, the bald-faced hornet has black and white or ivory coloring on its face, thorax, and the tip of the abdomen. Its wings are translucent dark brown. 

Bald-faced hornets live throughout North America but are most common in the southeastern United States. They live in large, gray, ball-shaped nests that can reach three feet in height. The nest is constructed of wood fiber mixed with saliva and resembles paper. The inner nest consists of paper cells similar in structure to a honeycomb. There are three to four tiers of combs within a nest, and a layered paper-like outer shell surrounds them. A single opening in the bottom of the nest allows the wasps to enter and leave. 

Nests are located at least three feet off the ground but are often much higher up. The queen will build them in shrubs, trees, under the eaves of a building, or any other protected location. Rotting wood usually provides the building material for the nests, but entomologists have found some nests constructed with the remains of ground-nesting yellow jackets that bald-faced hornets have killed. 

Because bald-faced hornets' nests are often high up in trees or in wooded areas, you may not know you have them unless you see the nest. If you experience an unprovoked attack by a bald-faced hornet, it's a good sign you're within three feet of a nest. Bald-faced hornets that are foraging away from their nests are not normally aggressive. 

Bald-faced hornets feed on many pest insects. The adults eat nectar from flowers, making them important pollinators, but they also feed insects and arthropods to their larvae. If you live in an area where nesting conditions are favorable, you may get them. However, they don't forage for human food, so it's unlikely you've done anything to attract them. 

Bald-faced hornets benefit the ecosystem and pose little threat to humans if their nests are not located in high-traffic areas. However, nests that are near doorways and walkways pose a significant sting risk because bald-faced hornets will aggressively defend their nests.

The bald-faced hornet sting can be particularly painful. They have smooth stingers, so they can sting repeatedly. In some people, the venom of a bald-faced hornet can cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.

The biggest risk from a bald-faced hornet is a sting that could result in an allergic reaction or an infection. Although stings can be painful and frightening, most only cause minor discomfort.

To treat a bald-faced hornet sting, first, remove the stinger by scraping across it with a dull object such as a credit card or fingernail. Then wash the area with soap and water. A cold pack wrapped in a thin cloth and placed on the sting for alternating periods of 10 minutes on and 10 minutes off for a total of 30 to 60 minutes can help reduce the swelling. You can take ibuprofen or over-the-counter itching remedies for discomfort. 

Call 911 or seek immediate medical care if the sting occurred in the mouth, nose, or throat area or if there are signs of a serious reaction such as:

  • Throat or chest tightness
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Hives over a large part of the body
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Anxiety, sweats, or chills

If bald-faced hornets are not located in high-traffic areas, you should leave them alone since they're beneficial insects. However, if their nest is located near human activity, there are some steps you can take to get rid of them, including: 

  • Try to find nests before they get too big. It's much easier to knock down a small nest before the queen creates a large colony to defend it. 
  • Observe the nest before you try to remove it. Watching it can help you determine if it's occupied and where the entrance is. 
  • Use a pressured insecticide meant for wasps and hornets. Treat the nest at night when the bald-faced hornets are resting. Direct the spray into the opening, not at the outside of the nest. 
  • When you spray the nest at night, don't shine a flashlight at it because they'll fly towards the light and attack. 
  • Wear eye protection, long sleeves, and gloves that are chemical resistant to protect you from bald-faced hornets and pesticides. Shower after treating the nest.  
  • Observe the nest after you treat it to ensure you've killed all of the colony. Any surviving bald-faced hornets will be extra aggressive. 
  • If you have a history of allergic reactions to insect stings, call a professional to remove the nest.