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Wasp Identification: 3 Effective Ways to Identify Wasps

Social wasp isolated on the flower.

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Three 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.

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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;

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  • 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.

【Read more about Bees】

The most striking features of yellow jackets, hornets, wasps summarized

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 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 Feeding Habits

Yellow Jackets Paper Comb (Enclosed) Subterranean More Than 100 Scavengers

Hornets Paper Comb (Enclosed) Shrubs, Trees & Eaves More Than 100 Live Insect Hunters

Paper Wasps Umbrella Shaped Comb (Open) Eaves (Suspended) Less Than 100 Live Insect Hunters

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