Different Types Of Wasps: Complete Guide

Close-up photo of a wasp

The appearance of one or two wasps in your house can be harmless, but in can also indicate that you're dealing with a nest or hive in or around your home which will need to be removed by an expert in pest control. Different types of wasps can also be dangerous, some causing allergic reactions. They can be quite aggressive and sting repeatedly. Their nests can cause damage to homes or trees and shrubs in your yard. In fact, stinging insects send more than 500,000 people to the ER every year, as reported by the National Pest Management Association.

For a layperson, it is easy to confuse creatures that look as similar to each other as wasps, bees, yellow jackets and other stinging insects. In addition, there are different types of wasps. How can you distinguish them from another? Learn more about this fascinating world of insects of the order Hymenoptera and suborder Apocrita.

What Is a Wasp?

Wasps are insects that belong to the order Hymenoptera and suborder Apocrita. Both of these orders include bees and ants, but a wasp is clearly neither bee nor ant. All share a common evolutionary ancestor, but unlike bees and ants, wasps do not form a clade or “branch” known as a monophyletic group. In less technical speak, wasps are winged insects that feature a narrow waist and a sting.

The appearance of wasps dates all the way back to the Jurassic era. They are a diverse bunch with about 30,000 of identified species in the world. In the United States alone, there are about 4,000 wasp species. Unlike bees, wasps are predatory creatures that feed on other insects such as flies, caterpillars, spiders, beetle larvae, boll weevils, tomato hornworms, aphids and wood-boring insects, depending on the type of wasp they are.

They appear in all parts of the globe other than the polar regions. The smallest wasps are chalcid wasps with a body length of only 0.139 mm (0.0055 in). The largest wasps are the Asian giant hornets, measuring up to 5 centimeters (2.0 in) in length. Other giant wasps include the ominous-sounding tarantula hawks and the giant scoliid of Indonesia.

Among the most common wasps you are likely to encounter here in the USA are the paper wasp, yellowjacket, and hornet, each with its own unique characteristics. These belong to the “eusocial” family of Vespidae who live together in a nest with non-reproducing workers and an egg-laying queen.

Most wasp species are actually solitary, but all wasps build nests. These papery abodes are created from wood fibers, which wasps scrape and chew into a pulp with their hard mandibles. A wasp colony can grow to reach up to 50,000 wasps in one summer.

What Do They Look Like?

Close-up photo of a wasp hornet

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Wasps come in many colors, from metallic blue to bright red, but we are mostly familiar with the annoying buzzing ones featuring bright warning colors such as yellow and brown. They have a narrow waist and stinger and are on average about 1.5 inches long; think the size a paper clip.

How to Easily Identify Them

How can you tell a wasp from a honeybee? Unlike bees, wasps have a narrow waist, called a petiole, which separates the abdomen from the thorax. They also have more pointed lower abdomens. Finally, bees are much for “fuzzy,” sporting significantly more body hair than wasps.

Do All Wasps Sting and Attack?

Wasp on top of a flower

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It depends! Most wasps are actually solitary and non-stinging. Stinging solitary wasps use their venom just for hunting, whereas social wasps use their stingers for self defense. Most animals have learned to stay clear of wasps but should one disturb a nest or wasp colony, the wasps will quickly swarm the intruder. In fact, social wasps send out a distress signal in the form of a pheromone that sends fellow colony members into a veritable stinging frenzy. And unlike bees, wasps are able to sting repeatedly. It's also of note that only female wasps have stingers, which also function as modified egg-laying organs.

Are Wasps Beneficial?

Wasps aren't just stinging and dangerous pests. Different types of wasps play many ecological roles, from being pollinators to predators. Some solitary wasps are parasites and lay their eggs on or in other insects. Many of these are pest insects, making wasps very beneficial for use in biological pest control for, say, tomatoes and other important crops.

How to Act Around Wasps and Avoid Stings

Wasps building a nest

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Don't start flapping your hands wildly; instead, calmly walk away. At outdoor events, keep food and drink covered and also avoid wearing perfume, cologne, or using heavily perfumed soaps and shampoo, which wasps are attracted to along with bright, colorful, floral clothing. Wear light-colored clothing instead. Wasps are also attracted to the scent of sweat, which makes them aggressive, and oddly, to the smell of tuna fish and salami. Be sure to inspect your property for nests.

What Are Different Types of Wasps?

As mentioned above, wasps have adapted to living all over the world. Some of the rarest species that you are never likely to encounter include a large, black and metallic Brazillian spider wasp dubbed A. prima and a newly discovered Amazonian parasitoid wasp called Clistopyga crassicaudata, featuring an extremely large stinger. No, the most common wasps you will encounter are the yellowjacket, paper wasp and hornet. And only a few different types of wasps are generally considered pests.

Yellow jacket

Close up photo of a yellowjacket wasp

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Yellow jackets are about 10 to 16 mm in length and feature black antennae and a black and yellow banded abdomen. Females have six abdominal patterns while males have seven. Yellowjackets are aggressive and will defend their colony. They will sting if they feel threatened.

Yellowjackets are social insects, living in colonies with workers (sterile females), males and a queen.

The queen yellowjacket builds a paper nest in which she lays her eggs. When the eggs hatch, they are fed until they grow into adult yellowjackets. Their nests are surrounded by a papery covering, which allows you to easily identify them. Their nests are found within wall voids or cavities in the ground. A yellowjacket colonies can contain 1,000 or more workers. Yellowjackets are attracted to bold colors, such as on clothing, and perfume. Avoid wearing both on a summer day to avoid attracting yellowjackets.

Paper Wasp

Paper wasps can be identified by their brown or black coloring with yellow markings. Some paper wasps feature red markings. Unlike yellowjackets or bees, they have rather long legs, which is one of their identifying markings. They're generally about 16-20 mm long. They are not as aggressive as yellowjackets or hornets, but their powerful sting can cause some people to have an allergic reaction.

Paperwasp on top of a wood

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They like to build their nests in dark, sheltered locations. A mature paper wasp nest is home to about 20 to 30 adults.


Hornet on top of a branch

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The common bald-faced hornet features ivory-white markings on the face and body and measures about 13mm-20mm in length. Hornets are part yellowjacket and very aggressive. They may sting repeatedly if provoked. In fact, they are able to squirt venom from their stinger into the eyes of intruders to their nest, which can cause temporary blindness.

A hornet's nest is grey, can reach up to two feet in height, and is also paper-like, made from the cellulose of rotting wood, chewed by the queen who creates cells in her nest to lay her eggs. A hornet colony can house 100 to 400 workers.

How Do I Get Rid of a Wasp Infestation?

Wasp nests can be dangerous to handle. For your own safety, never try to remove wasp nests from your premises. Call a pest control specialist to do the job.


Two wasp building a nest

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Unless you're into farming or horticulture, you will mostly likely consider wasps a “pest:” even those who do not fit the category by definition. When you're outside enjoying sunny weather and a wasp comes buzzing your way, your instinctual reaction to the loud, buzz-y and aggressive nuisance is to be anxious, even if the little intruder is of the non-stinging variety. After all, they do feature a rather threatening appearance with bright warning colors.

Coming upon wasps in your home also isn't exactly a moment of joy, since dealing with a nest requires the help of a professional to ensure the safe removal. But perhaps knowing more about different types of wasps and their features and behaviors can make them seem less ominous and pesky, since they occupy an important role in our planet's ecosystem as predators, pollinators and pest control.

And the fact that there are about 30,000 identified species in the world just boggles the mind. There are so many more interesting facts about these creatures. Some wasps are omnivores, devouring even human food, which is why they're so attracted to outdoor barbecues and picnics. But they're really only around until the end of the summer. In the autumn, all wasps except for a few new queens die. The new queens spend their winter in an old log or burrow to emerge again in the spring to create new colonies.

But it's always better to be safe rather than sorry. Wasp stings can hurt and cause allergic reactions. It's particularly annoying that wasps, unlike bees, are able and willing to sting repeatedly. We hope you enjoyed learning more about different types of wasps.


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