Wasp Identification: 3 Simple Ways to Identify Wasps

Wasps belong to the family of insects, and one can distinguish them among thousands of other species. Some of them are considered to be beneficial insects while others as a pest insect species. These species are spread all around the globe. Common wasps are predatory in nature. The most commonly found wasps are yellow jackets, hornets along with paper wasps and most of them are solitary wasps. Some of the species are also social wasps, and they have colonies that hundreds of members.

You can conveniently identify and characterize the different types of wasps through their colors, nesting habitats or even shapes. It is easy to differentiate wasps from bees if you know some key differences between the two. Some species of wasps also sting. The stinging insect nest can be found both on the ground as well as suspending from some place high. This text will provide you with some ideas to identify these wasps. However, it does not include the parasitoid wasps because they are tiny in size and only a wasp expert can tell you how to identify them.

3 Simple Ways to Identify Wasps

1. By physical characteristics

It is important to identify different types of wasps and distinguish them from bees. Some of the wasp species do sting, and it is important that you maintain a certain amount of distance from them and their nest. Most of the time, you can quickly identify a wasp by having a look at its physical characteristics. Their color, size, and shape of the body have a story to tell.Embroidery brown bug, forest ant, yellow, red, blue and green flies, honey bee, wasp. Fashion patch with insects illustration. 

  • Yellow and black

You can quickly identify European paper wasps and yellow jackets by looking for their yellow and black bands which are observable on their abdomens. A type of a killer wasp is Cicada killers looks just like a bigger version of yellow jackets. One can characterize the European hornet with the help of its red and brown thorax with yellow and black tinted tail. Mud daubers also have a similar kind of a yellow and black pattern. However, a different type of mud daubers also has metallic blue and black design.

The tarantula hawks or spider wasps also have a similar kind of a pattern. The North American native paper wasps have golden brown background with different patches of yellow and red. Then there are baldfaced hornets that have black and white stripes on their thorax. Digger wasps have black and yellow bodies with orange and brown patches along with wings that are metallic blue in color. Despite their names, the female velvet ants are also in black color, and they are a type of wasps as well. They have patterns of orange, white, yellow and bright red color.

  • Estimate the wasp’s size

The size of a wasp also contributes a lot when it comes to its identification. Yellow jackets are approximately half of an inch in size. While other larger wasps such as baldfaced wasps can grow up to a size that ranges between 0.75 inches and 1.2 inches. European hornets can grow up to 1.4 inches in size while tarantula hawks can grow up to 2.5 inches in length. Cicada killers can also measure up to one and a half of an inch. Mud daubers and paper wasps can range between half of an inch and a quarter of an inch in length.

  • Observe the body shape

You can quickly identify a European hornet by their hairless bodies and narrow waists. Yellowjackets have short but narrow waists, and they have a cone-like abdomen as well. A sharp pointy end equips these cone-like abdomens. These categorize as stinging insects. Paper wasps have a spindle-shaped waist with long legs whereas; the mud daubers have a very narrow waist with slimmer and longer body.

2. By recognizing wasps habitats

Wasp nest isolated on white background.If you know them enough, you can quickly identify the wasps by their habitats as well. Some wasps prefer to build their nest on the ground while some of them make suspending nests on high places. You can also use the shape of the nests that they make to identify what kind of wasp is residing in the area. Some of the most common types of nests are as follows;

  • Paper nests

Bees build their nests by using wax whereas; paper wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets use saliva and paper to build their nests. Look for the nests of yellow jackets in wall voids and crawl spaces. For the nest of hornets, you should look in shrubs, trees and under the building eaves. Building overhangs are ideal places to find the nests of paper wasps. The nests of paper wasps will be open from the top end.

  • Mud dauber’s mud nests

The nests of mud daubers, as well as mud wasps, are cylindrical, long and tube-like and they are present on the sides of buildings, porches, lawn furniture, carports, and attics and the underside of any unused, untouched equipment. Some mud daubers also build lumpy nests. Another species, the potter wasps which are also known as mason wasps also build mud nests but their nests look like a pot. The mud daubers’ nests are also found around puddles, drinking fountains, properly watered lawns and pond edges because these places are ideal for them to collect mud for their nests. Because they live close to the human world, therefore, they can be characterized as nuisance wasps because their sting can cause a few issues.

  • Digger wasps burrows in the ground

The burrows of digger wasps have a pencil sized diameter, and you can find these in sandy soil which is well drained. There will be plenty of little vegetation around the burrows of digger wasps. These wasps dig their burrows in areas that exposed to direct sunlight.

3. By differentiating between wasps and bees

You have to understand the significant differences between bees and wasps to distinguish them properly. Wasps distinguish themselves from bees, with their larger bodies that have very narrow waists and they do not have any hair or very less amount of hair as compared to the bees. Wasps also have very distinct coloring in their bodies as compared to the bees, which easily differentiates them from bees.  Here are some ways to characterize them:

  • Physical characteristics

Bee on the chamomile flower.First, you must look the waist of the insect you are observing. The waists of bees are similar to the rest of their bodies while wasps have very thin, narrow waists. You can also check for body hair as bees have them while Wasps have smooth bodies. The hairy bodies of bees enable them to carry pollen and wasps have other ways to carry pollen. Some of the species of wasp also consume pollen such as pollen wasps. The length of these insects also plays a significant role as wasps have longer and larger bodies than most types of bees.

  • Check the coloring

You will find this one a bit tough because a majority of the bees and wasps do have some coloring and patterns. However, you will notice that the coloring patterns of a wasp are clearer as compared to the bees. Wasps distinguish themselves from bees by their vivid coloring while bees have a lot more muted coloring.

  • What they eat

Wasps are hunters and commonly eat other insects including bees. Some of them like pollen wasps also eat pollen. Some wasp species are scavengers like yellow jackets. These wasps mostly look for human food from garbage. On the other hand, bees prefer eating nectar and pollen.

Yellow Jackets, Hornets, Wasps: the Most Striking Features

While identifying different types of wasps, it is important that you know their physical attributes along with their feeding habits and natural habitat that they prefer. Most of the time wasps can be identified by the help of their coloring and patterns as well. You can distinguish wasps from bees, but you also need to distinguish one wasp species from another. Yellow jackets, hornets and paper wasps (recommended reading: best commercial trap for wasps and hornets) do have some similarities, but they also differ from each other in several ways. For instance, yellow jackets nests are enclosed very much similar to hornets’ nests, however; paper wasps have umbrella-shaped nests that are open from the top.

Yellow jackets are subterranean in nature while hornets make their nests on leaves, trees, and shrubs. Paper wasps build their nests which are suspending from the building eaves. The number of members in a colony of hornets or yellow jackets is usually over 100 while that of paper wasp is less than this figure. Paper wasps and hornets prefer live hunting insects while yellow jackets go for scavenging on sugars and dead insects. The following chart provides a clearer picture about some of the most striking features of these three types of wasps.

Wasp Type Nest Type Nest Location Colony Size
Yellow Jacket Paper Comb (Enclosed) Subterranean More Than 100 Scavengers
Hornet Paper Comb (Enclosed) Shrubs, Trees & Eaves More Than 100 Live Insect Hunters
Paper Wasp Umbrella Shaped Comb (Open) Eaves (Suspended) Less Than 100 Live Insect Hunters

3 Subgroups of Wasps

Wasps are divided into three sub-categories social wasps, solitary wasps and parasitic wasps.

1. Social wasps

Wasp nest with wasps sitting on it. The nest of a family of wasps which is taken a close-up.Social wasps are also known as Vespidae. They prefer to live in the form of colonies or groups. Among a vast number of wasps species, only 1,000 species are social wasps. Examples of social wasps are hornets, yellow jackets, and umbrella wasps. They contain different wings from other wasp’s families. Their wings can get folded in longitudinal shape when wasps are to rest. These wasps prepare their nest made up of paper in a group, and they also travel in the form of group. Social wasps are best among all other species, and they possess a proper family or colony system where they live together with one or more queens, few drones (male wasps) and worker wasps.

During spring, queen finds a nesting place and builds its nest to lay the clutch of eggs. The eggs in the clutch transformed to produce workers and help her further in expanding the nest. Queen continues laying an egg the whole summer and produces a colony of almost 5000 wasps. At the end of summer, new queens and drones go out to find a new partner, and at the start of winters, all members of colony die except, the newly fertilized queens who hibernate in winters to start laying eggs in the coming season.

2. Solitary wasps

Solitary wasps are also known as Sphecidae and Pompilidae wasps, and they live alone instead of making whole colonies. Examples of solitary wasps are cicada killer, mud daubers, and pollen wasps. Among all species of wasps, solitary wasps are greatest in number. Their females usually create their separate nests where they lay their eggs. They create their nests in different places like on soil, rotten wood, tree cavities, and inside the rock crevices. These wasps usually attack their prey and paralyze them. After that, they carry them inside the cells of their nests and seal them inside by laying their eggs on them. The victim stays alive inside the cell of nests unless the larva hatches from the egg and starts consuming the preyed insect to get their diet. Sometimes, solitary wasps also build their nests in the small group, but still, in that case, they continue nourishing their off-springs only.

3. Parasitic wasps

Parasitic wasps are also known as Braconidae and Ichneumonidae. They are parasitic in nature as they lay their eggs on or inside the bodies of their prey that may vary from beetles, aphids or caterpillars. They offspring after hatching from egg continue consuming that insect and convert into an adult. The females of parasitic wasps contain ovipositors that they use to inject eggs into the bodies of their victims. Their sting is not as strong as other wasps contain, but their ovipositors are their actual weapon against other insects. The insects that are preyed by wasps are not consumed by themselves; rather they only feed on flowers’ nectar. In parasitic wasps, after mating wasps start searching for a suitable host where they can lay their eggs. They either bring their host back to their nests, or they live them in their place and lay eggs inside their bodies.

3 common and aggressive wasps

Among all species of social wasps, three most aggressive and commonly seen wasps are a yellow jacket, hornet, and paper wasp. Yellowjackets belong to the genera Vespula and hornets belong to the genera, Vespa.

1. Yellow jacket

Yellow Jacket Wasp on white background.The most dangerous and common wasp among social wasps is yellow jacket who are the cause behind the major sting cases. They have gotten this name because of the presence of vibrant yellow and black color on their bodies. They are highly defensive in nature and become uncontrollably aggressive during the month of July and September. In this period, male wasps compete to mate with the queen, and they usually die short after mating. They consume insects, but they also forage for sweet and high protein food items. They can easily be seen scavenging for food in picnic points or trash cans. However, the adult wasps usually consume the sweet secretions produced by larvae when they bring food for the little ones.

2. Hornet

Hornet is another social wasp often confused with the bald-faced hornet that is simply the group member of yellow jacket wasps. However, the European wasps are Hornet, and they are almost only twenty true hornet species are present all around the world. They are quite large in their body size and their nests look like a drop of tear or football. They usually prefer to create their nests at trees, and bushes. Hornet often preys other insects, chew them and feed the paste to their offsprings. They are considered less aggressive and common as compared to the yellow jacket wasps. However, the reason behind their low appearance is that they are not found around trash cans and picnic points. They attack with their stings if their colonies are disturbed.

3. Paper wasp

Paper wasp is another social wasp known as umbrella wasps. These wasps got their name as umbrella wasp because of the design of their nests. They collect fibers from dead trees and plants and mix their saliva with it to make rough paper like material that they use to construct their nests. Their nests appear cellular in structure and don’t contain any coverings on the cells. They also prey different insects to feed their offsprings. They are also defensive in nature and usually attack other to protect their colony.

Are Wasps Dangerous?

The reason behind people get scared from these wasps is the presence of the sting that is their modified reproductive organ. The sting is only present in the female wasps, and they use it during reproduction. However, the scary truth is, unlike bees they can sting a person repeatedly.

1. Ordinary string

In typical cases, wasps’ regular string does not create much trouble for the person. They usually create swelling along with intense pain because of injecting venom inside the body that disappears within a week.

2. Fatal Sting

Few wasps can produce fatal side effects if they bite a person. They can also create severe allergic reactions inside the body of the victim. Sometimes their sting can produce life-threatening consequences. Few cases of anaphylactic shock have also been registered because of wasps’ sting.Wasp on a human’s hand with the sting in the skin. 

Relationship with humans

Wasps show both positive and negative relationship with humans. As a stinging insect, they become an enemy of people as they can contaminate their food items and also sting them badly on getting aggressive. They usually build their nests on attics or near buildings. They not only scare passing people but also irritate them by following them.

However, besides having a dangerous sting, wasps are also very beneficial for humans. They consume a vast variety of insects. Therefore, this thing becomes their plus point. Many people and farmers cultivate wasps so that they can consume and eradicate the population of other large variety of insects. Besides controlling pest population, wasps are also an excellent source of pollination; they pollinate flowers as they suck nectar of different flowers.

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