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Wasps: the complete guide

Wasps are often mistaken for bees or other stinging insects. Knowing their characteristics and understanding their behaviors is the first step in proper identification. Each stinging insect species requires a different treatment method, so adequate identification plays a crucial role in controlling them.

Contact your local wasp control expert

Types of wasps in Western U.S.

There are many species of wasps throughout the world. Below are four of the most common in the United States.

Paper wasps

Paper wasps (Polistes spp.) can be identified by their upside-down umbrella-shaped nest. They are roughly one inch long and are often brightly colored, which discourages any would-be predators or nest raiders.

Yellow jackets

Yellow jackets (Vespula and Dolichovespula spp) are black with yellow markings and range in size from ⅜ to ⅝ inch long, with queens being significantly larger. They nest underground, inside structural voids, or hanging from tree branches or structural overhangs.

Bald-faced hornets

Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) can get up to 3/4 inch long and are primarily black in color with a white face. They are a relative to the yellow jacket, so their nests are found only hanging from tree branches or structural overhangs.

European hornets

European hornets (Vespa crabro) are brown with yellow stripes and are the largest hornet in North America, reaching lengths of one to one and a half inches. Their nests are found only in voids such as hollow trees or hollow soffits.

More resources on different wasps

While these are the most common wasps, there are other wasps that you should be aware of in the western U.S. Check out some more of our resources:

The great black wasp

Samurai wasps: Used to control stink bugs

Northern giant hornets

Cicada killers vs. Murder hornets

What you need to know about wasps

Understanding the characteristics and habits of wasps can help you identify the type of wasp on your property, as their behaviors can vary depending on if they are a social or solitary wasp.

  • Colony

    Social wasps form bee-like colonies with a queen who can reproduce, and many worker wasps that keep the hive flourishing. Throughout the season, these colonies can contain anywhere from 25 to 100 wasps. Most of these colonies are annual and die off in the winter.

  • Lifecycle

    All wasps start out as an egg, but the complete lifecycle of a wasp depends on if it is classified as a social wasp or a solitary, parasitoid type of wasp. Because of their tinier nests, solitary wasps only lay a few eggs. Parasitoid wasps use a host, which is typically a spider, to lay their eggs and reproduce.

    Female social wasps restart their colonies from scratch every season. A female social wasp will fertilize the eggs and they will hatch as workers, resulting in more reproductive males and females being born. Non-fertilized eggs will hatch into males and cannot reproduce. During the colder months, the females hibernate and rebuild their nests to start the process over again. Male wasps die in the winter.

  • Diet

    Most wasps are omnivorous. They will feed on a variety of foods and are extremely attracted to sugary substances, like wine and nectar, and foods that are high in protein, such as insects and spiders.

    Learn more: What do wasps eat?

  • Nests

    Wasps like to nest in overhangs, eaves, roofs of houses, and trees. They build their nests away from the elements and in hard-to-reach areas to keep them safe from predators. Each wasp species builds its own unique type of nest, which is one way you can know what type of wasp is on your property.

    • Paper wasp nests can be identified by their upside-down umbrella shape. Though they can house a few dozen paper wasps, they rarely get larger than six to eight inches across.
    • Yellow jacket nests can be identified by their upside-down teardrop shape. They begin at about the size of a golf ball and can grow to a few feet across by the fall. They are made of chewed wood fibers that envelop the nest.
    • Hornet nests can grow up to the size of a basketball. They build their nests in tree branches and under eaves. The size of their nest depends on the number of wasps inside.

    Learn more: How to prevent wasp nests on your porch

Wasp stings

Wasps are most commonly known for their stings. Wasps use their stinger as a defense mechanism when they feel threatened or when they are agitated. Their venom can paralyze their prey and, as you may have experienced, can bring an extreme amount of pain. This forces whatever is bothering them to leave them alone.

A wasp sting can be very painful, and sometimes life-threatening to those who are allergic to them. Once stung, the skin around the sting may become swollen, red, and painful. Allergic reactions can cause severe swelling and anaphylaxis. You should seek medical attention if you have extreme swelling or are having trouble breathing.

Learn more:

Prevention tips for a sting-free summer

How to avoid yellow jacket stings

Wasp nest on the gutter of a roof

Frequently asked questions

  • Do wasps do anything good?

    Wasps are nature's natural pest controllers. They prey on insects and parasites that can cause damage to our crops and other vegetation. Some wasp species are efficient pollinators.

    Learn more: Everything to know about stinging pests

  • Are wasps aggressive?

    Wasps are aggressive when they feel threatened or annoyed. They become more aggressive at the end of the summer and the fall as they prepare for the winter months and protect their queen.

  • Does killing a wasp attract more?

    Unfortunately, it can. A dead wasp emits a pheromone that alerts the rest of the colony of danger. Instead of fleeing their nest, the wasps will come out and attack to protect their home and their queen.

    Learn more: 10 must-know facts about wasps

  • Will a wasp sting you for no reason?

    Chances are a wasp stung you because it felt threatened or agitated. This can happen when you get close to their nest or are waving your arms at them trying to shoo them away. Rarely do wasps sting for no reason.

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