What Are Wasps?


It’s difficult to enjoy the outdoors to the fullest when unwanted guests (especially of the stinging insect variety) refuse to leave you alone. Wasps have a nasty reputation for being very aggressive and more than willing to sting you if you try to fend them off.  It is important to be able to identify wasps so that you can deal with them accordingly. 



There are a few characteristics that wasps generally have.  Most wasps have very narrow waists, little hair, bright colors, and black and yellow patterns. You can often spot a wasp when they are flying because their legs generally hang low in flight rather than stay up close to their bodies.  Continue reading to see how each wasp varies in appearance.


Wasps are most active during the day and during warm weather.  During cold weather months, the queens will hibernate, and the rest of the workers will die off.  


Dr. Killigan's Wasp PictureWasps are interested in both meat and sugar.  The larvae of these insects are carnivores, so the adults hunt small insects such as ants, caterpillars, grubs, insect larva, and other insects for the yellow jacket larvae. They tend to make appearances at picnics or barbecues, and will also pay visits to your garbage cans.

During the summer there are plenty of meat sources for wasps to bring to their larvae, and in turn the larvae produce a sugary substance which the adult wasps eat – the process of which is called trophallaxis.  Towards the end of the summer, as the cold creeps in, the food source for the larvae diminishes, causing the secretion of the sugary substance to also diminish. Because of this, wasps then go to outside sources – sugary fruit, food, and flowers – for their sugar intake.


Wasps can assist in pollination, but at a much lesser rate.  This is because the hair and pollen baskets that bees have help them effectively transfer pollen from flower to flower, and wasps have little hair and no pollen baskets.


Unlike bees, wasps can sting as many times as they want without dying.  If you have been stung by a wasp, click here to read about home remedies. 

While these are general traits that most wasps have, different wasp species have varying appearances and habits. There are four common types of wasps which you are likely to encounter, from which there are other subspecies.  The four common species of wasps are Yellow Jackets, Paper Wasps, Potter Wasps, and Hornets.


Yellow jackets are often confused with honey bees because of their similar appearance.  While they are about the same size, there are clear differences between the two insects.  It is important that these insects are not confused, as their temperaments are vastly different, and bees are essential to the survival of humanity.

Dr. Killigan's Yellow JacketAPPEARANCE

Yellow jackets are about the same size as honey bees, about half of an inch.  They have yellow or white markings rather than honey bees, which are golden brown with black markings.  Yellow jackets do not have pollen baskets like honey bees do, and therefore are not effective at pollinating flowers.


Dr. Killigan's Yellow Jacket Colony Yellow jackets live in colonies of several thousand insects. Their nests consist of males, sterile females, and the queen.  The Yellow Jackets hatch as larvae, then pupate and emerge as adult insects. Towards the end of summer, the female workers will build larger cells in which the new queens develop.  

When the new queens emerge, they mate with the males and go into hibernation for the winter. During this hibernation, the workers and males die off, leaving only the new queens to sleep through the winter. In spring, the queens will set out to build their own nests and will begin to produce eggs. In warmer areas, however, the workers and the males will not die off during the winter, and the nests will keep growing.


Paper Wasps are not aggressive, but they will sting if they are threatened.  Their stings tend to be on the mild side, but they can cause major reactions to the people that are allergic to their venom.

Dr. Killigan's Paper WaspAPPEARANCE

These wasps are usually about an inch long, though they can range from .5 inches to 1.5 inches in size.  They are usually a dark brown color with black wings and yellow markings. Paper Wasps will sometimes resemble Yellow Jackets, but Paper Wasps are more slender with thinner waists.


Dr. Killigan's Paper Wasp NestPaper Wasps (sometimes known as Umbrella Wasps) get their name from the appearance of their nests. They make their papery nest out of a material consisting of plants and saliva, and the nest resembles an umbrella.  They live in small colonies and prefer to build their nests in sheltered areas. This can include inside homes or garages, inside walls, under beams or roof overhangs, and other similarly sheltered areas.

The adult Paper Wasps feed on nectar from flowers and hunt insects for their larvae.  Because they feed on nectar, they assist in pollination and are therefore considered beneficial insects.


Dr. Killigan's Potter WaspAPPEARANCE

Potter Wasps can be confused with yellow jackets due to their similar markings.  Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two wasps is their mid-sections. The abdomen of a potter wasp is very thin and much longer than the abdomen of a yellow jacket. The bodies of Potter Wasps are usually a combination of two colors, the first being either black or brown, and the second being yellow, white, orange, or red.


Dr. Killigan's Potter Wasp NestThese wasps, unlike yellow jackets, are not social.  This means that because their interest lies in feeding their own young, rather than bringing back food for an entire colony, their nests are quite small – usually containing about 20-30 members.

Potter Wasps get their name from the appearance of their nests.  They create nests out of mud, sometimes using twigs or other similar objects.  The shape of the nests resembles mud from a potter’s wheel. These nests can be found in vaulted ceilings, outside under eaves or awnings, in crevices where two walls or a wall and a roof connect.  They are typically built in dry and sheltered areas.

Potter Wasp larvae eat insects which have been paralyzed by adults, and the adult wasps eat nectar from flowers.


Dr. Killigan's European HornetAPPEARANCE

European hornets are brown with ochre-orange stripes, and small hairs over their bodies.  Their faces are usually paler than the rest of their bodies. They are around an inch and a half in length, making them much larger than most insects they could be confused with.


Dr. Killigan's European Hornet NestThese wasps are social and live in colonies of up to a few hundred.  The dynamics of their nests are very similar to the dynamics of yellow jacket nests. The queen lays eggs which hatch, pupate, and mature into adult wasps which are the workers.  The workers are sterile and will die out during the winter. In late summer, the fertile hornets will hatch. The mated female hornets will hibernate during the winter while the other hornets will die out.  These fertile, mated female hornets will become queens of new nests the following year.

When attempting to identify a European Hornet’s nest, it is important to know that the nest can vary in appearance based on where it is located.  If a hornet nest is built in a sheltered area such as a tree stump, garage, or in between walls, the cells will be exposed. However, if the nest was built in the open, it will have a protective covering which is composed of chewed wood.


Dr. Killigan's European WaspEuropean Hornets feed on a large variety of insects, from flies to caterpillars, typically going for larger insects.  They have even been known to feed on honey bees and yellow jackets.

They are about five times the size of honey bees, and honey bees have two things that hornets want – protein and sugar (meat and honey.)  Honey bees are beneficial to humanity as a whole, and one hornet can wipe out about forty bees per minute.

Some may see these insects as beneficial because they eliminate many insects that are pests and that do damage to wood or plants.  However, European Hornets can do quite a bit of damage to trees and plants, as they will strip back the bark to get to the sap inside, not to mention the threat that they pose to honeybees and the very painful stings that they can administer.


Overall, wasps are not a desirable insect to have near homes, children, and pets.  If you have been stung by a wasp, click here to find home remedies for wasp stings.  If you are experiencing a wasp infestation and wish to remove the threat from in or near your home, click here to learn how to get rid of wasps.


How to Get Rid of Wasps

Home Remedies for Wasp Stings