Wasps are a diverse subgroup of the order Hymenoptera, suborder Apocrita, which also includes both bees and ants. There are over 100,000 wasp species worldwide, of which only around 33,000 sting. We have covered their role in the ecosystem, how they differ from bees, and nest identification in previous articles. Here, we will discuss common wasps that you’re likely to encounter. The most common type of wasps varieties include the paper wasps, yellow jackets, hornets, mud daubers, and cicada killers.
Paper wasps are social wasps belonging to the genus Polistes that are often encountered around buildings. They are united by their nesting behavior (umbrella-shaped papery structure of hexagonal cells), long abdomens, and narrow waists. Paper wasps have longer legs and are less aggressive than yellow jackets. The toxin in their stings is also less dangerous to humans. Paper wasps hunt in fields and meadows and build their nests under building eaves or overhangs. Like other wasp species, adults feed other insects (often those considered pests) to their larvae. Coloring typically differs by species, though many have yellow abdominal bands. Northern (P. fuscatus) and European (P. dominula) paper wasps are the most common. Northern paper wasps range from reddish-brown to black and grow to about ¾ of an inch while European paper wasps are yellow and black and can be mistaken for yellow jackets. Northern paper wasps are native to North America and are common in the midwestern United States. The native range of the European paper wasp comprises Mediterranean countries, southern Europe, northern Africa, the Middle East, and China. Since the 1970s, it has further been found in North America.
Yellow jackets, and the closely related hornets (both social wasps) fall into the family Vespidae. Yellowjacket wasps are distributed in the genus Vespula and related genera and are identified by abdominal banding in black and yellow. They are typically about ½-inch long. They nest in cavities either underground or inside trees and buildings. Like paper wasps, their papery nests are composed of hexagonal cells, but yellow jacket nests are enclosed within an envelope. Of the four most commonly encountered species, eastern and western yellow jackets (V. maculifrons and V. pensylvanica) are ground wasps, nesting in underground burrows, German yellow jackets (Paravespula germanica) are found aboveground in building cavities, and bald-faced hornets (Dolichiovespula maculata) hang their nests from building eaves or trees (much like paper wasps). More aggressive than paper wasps or solitary wasp species, the majority of Hymenoptera stings are inflicted by yellow jackets. This is also due to the diet of adults. While larval yellow jackets eat other insects, adults consume nectar, fruit, other sugary substances, and meat. This makes them frequent guests at human picnics. While yellow jackets are found globally, they are most common in the United States’ southeast region.