Wasps
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About Wasps

Wasps belong to the animal kingdom, class Insecta, and order Hymenoptera. These buzzing insects are closely related to bees and ants and are known for their distinctive appearance and behaviors.

The wasp might be affectionately known as the busy buzzer.  We invite you to get busy below learning more about the fascinating world of wasps, including their various species, unique characteristics, and how they differ from bees, yellow jackets, and hornets.

The wasp is an insect with a slender body, six legs, and two pairs of wings. They typically have a narrow waist, called a petiole, which distinguishes them from bees. Wasps come in a variety of colors, including black, yellow, and metallic shades. Unlike bees, most wasp species do not have the same level of body hair.

One of the unique characteristics of wasps is their ability to sting multiple times without losing their stinger, unlike bees that typically lose their stinger and die after stinging. Wasps possess a modified ovipositor, which can be used for defense and capturing prey. However, not all wasp species are aggressive, and they usually only sting when they feel threatened or their nests are disturbed.

Types of Wasps

With an estimated 100,000 identified species, the wasp exhibits remarkable diversity. They can be categorized into several families, including paper wasps (Polistinae), yellow jackets (Vespinae), hornets (Vespa), and parasitic wasps (Ichneumonidae and Braconidae). Each family and species has its unique characteristics and behaviors.

Here is a list of 7 popular or common types of wasps:

  • Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata): Despite the name, the bald-faced hornet is actually a type of wasp. It gets its name from the white markings on its face. These wasps build large, grayish-colored nests that are often suspended from tree branches.
  • European Hornet (Vespa crabro): The European hornet is one of the largest wasp species. They have brown and yellow markings and build their nests in tree hollows or other protected locations. They are generally less aggressive than other wasps but can still deliver a painful sting if provoked.
  • Mud Dauber Wasp (Sceliphron spp.): Mud daubers are solitary wasps known for building nests out of mud. They construct cylindrical mud tubes, often attaching them to structures such as walls or eaves. Mud daubers are beneficial as they hunt spiders to provision their nests.
  • Cicada Killer Wasp (Sphecius speciosus): Cicada killer wasps are large, solitary wasps that prey on cicadas. They dig burrows in the ground and paralyze cicadas before bringing them back to their burrows as food for their larvae.
  • Asian Giant Hornet (Vespa mandarinia): The Asian giant hornet, also known as the “murder hornet,” is the largest species of wasp. Native to Asia, they have a fearsome reputation due to their aggressive behavior and potent venom. They are not commonly found outside of Asia.
  • Cuckoo Wasp (Chrysididae family): Cuckoo wasps are named after their behavior of laying their eggs in the nests of other wasps. They are known for their metallic, often iridescent colors and are relatively small in size.
  • Parasitic Wasps (various families): There are many species of parasitic wasps that belong to different families, such as Ichneumonidae and Braconidae. These wasps lay their eggs inside or on other insects, often caterpillars or other larvae, which serve as hosts for their developing young.

Please note that some wasp species can exhibit aggressive behavior and deliver painful stings if provoked. It is important to exercise caution and respect their space when encountering wasps in their natural habitats.

What makes wasps unique?

Wasps are known for their vital ecological roles as predators and pollinators. As predators, they help control populations of insects that may be considered pests, such as flies and caterpillars. By feeding on these insects, wasps contribute to maintaining balance in ecosystems.

Wasps are also important pollinators, although they are often overshadowed by bees in this role. While foraging for nectar, wasps inadvertently transfer pollen from flower to flower, aiding in plant reproduction.

Unlike bees, wasps are less specialized in collecting pollen and do not have specialized structures like pollen baskets on their hind legs. However, their pollination services should not be underestimated, as they visit a wide range of flowering plants and contribute to plant diversity.

Summary

Wasps are remarkable insects that play crucial roles in ecosystems as predators and pollinators. With their slender bodies, versatile behaviors, and diverse species, they contribute to the intricate balance of nature. 

Understanding the unique characteristics of wasps, their various species, and how they differ from bees, yellow jackets, and hornets helps us appreciate their importance and coexist with them in harmony.

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Types of Wasps

Asian Hornet

The Asian Hornet, an invasive species, is known for its aggressive nature and potent sting. It poses a threat to native ecosystems and honeybee populations.

Black and yellow Mud Dauber

The Black and Yellow Mud Dauber, a solitary wasp, builds mud nests and hunts spiders to provision them, showcasing its fascinating solitary behavior.

Eastern Cicada Killer

The Eastern Cicada Killer, a large wasp species, hunts cicadas for its young. It excavates burrows, demonstrating fascinating predatory behaviors.

Eastern Yellowjacket

The Eastern Yellowjacket, a social wasp species, constructs paper nests, forages for insects and sugary substances, and defends its colony.

European Common Wasp

The European Common Wasp, a social insect, builds intricate paper nests, forages for food, and defends its colony, illustrating complex social structures and behaviors.

European Hornet

The European Hornet, a large and solitary wasp species, hunts insects and builds papery nests. Its imposing size and distinctive coloration make it a predator.

German Wasp

The German Wasp, a social insect, constructs intricate nests, forages for food, and defends its colony with aggression, showcasing its complex social behavior.

Mud Dauber

The Mud Dauber, a solitary wasp, constructs mud nests, hunts spiders for provisioning, and demonstrates remarkable solitary behavior.

Paper Wasp

(Polistes spp.): Paper wasps are known for their distinctive papery nests, which they construct by chewing wood fibers and mixing them with saliva.

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Red Paper Wasp

The Red Paper Wasp, a social insect, constructs papery nests, hunts for prey, and defends its colony, illustrating complex social structures and behaviors.

Velvet Ant

Velvet ants, despite their name, are wasps. These striking insects are covered in dense, brightly colored fuzz and are known for their painful stings.

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Yellow Jacket

(Vespula spp.): Yellow jackets are commonly found in North America and are known for their black and yellow striped bodies. They build nests in various locations.

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FAQ’s

1. What are the largest and smallest wasps in the world?

The largest wasp in the world is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). With queens reaching lengths of up to 2 inches (5 centimeters) and wingspans of over 3 inches (7.5 centimeters), these imposing insects are native to Asia and are not commonly found in other parts of the world.

On the other end of the size spectrum, the smallest wasps belong to the group called fairy wasps (Mymaridae). These tiny wasps measure less than 0.04 inches (1 millimeter) in length, making them barely visible to the naked eye.

2. Which wasp has the most painful sting?

The title for the most painful wasp sting is often attributed to the tarantula hawk wasp (Pepsis spp.). These wasps are known for their incredibly painful stings, which they use to paralyze tarantulas. However, it’s important to note that pain tolerance can vary among individuals, and the perception of pain can differ depending on personal experiences.

3. How long do wasps live (lifespan)?

The lifespan of wasps varies among species, but in general, worker wasps live for a few weeks to a few months, while queens can live for several months or even years, depending on the species. 

Some social wasp species, such as paper wasps and yellow jackets, establish colonies that last for a single season. In contrast, solitary wasps, like mud daubers and cicada killer wasps, live individually and do not form long-lasting colonies.

4. What do wasps eat?

Wasps are primarily carnivorous insects and play an essential role in controlling populations of other insects. They feed on various small creatures, including flies, caterpillars, spiders, and other insects. Wasps capture their prey using their sharp mandibles and then often chew the prey into a pulp to feed their young.

In addition to hunting, adult wasps also consume nectar and sweet liquids. They are attracted to sugary substances and may be seen feeding on fruits, flower nectar, or even human food like soda or juice.

5. How do wasps reproduce?

The reproductive behavior of wasps varies depending on the species. Social wasp species, such as yellow jackets and hornets, have complex social structures with queens, males, and worker castes. 

The queen wasp mates with a male, after which she seeks a suitable location to build a nest. She lays eggs, which develop into worker wasps that assist in colony activities and caring for the developing larvae.

Solitary wasp species, on the other hand, do not form colonies. The female solitary wasp builds individual nests and provisions them with prey for her offspring. She lays an egg on or near the paralyzed prey, and when the egg hatches, the larvae feed on the paralyzed host.

6. What is the difference between wasps and bees?

Wasps and bees are closely related insects and share many similarities. However, some key differences set them apart. One notable distinction is their body shape. Wasps typically have a slender and smooth body, while bees are usually rounder and covered in dense hair.

Another significant difference is their feeding habits. Wasps are primarily carnivorous, preying on other insects, while bees are herbivorous, collecting pollen and nectar from flowers. Bees have specialized structures, such as pollen baskets and branched hairs, to help them gather and transport pollen efficiently.

Additionally, bees are often social insects that form large colonies, whereas many wasp species are solitary or have smaller colonies. However, there are exceptions, with some wasps, like yellow jackets and hornets, forming social colonies.

7. What is the difference between wasps and yellow jackets?

Yellow jackets are a specific type of wasp belonging to the Vespinae subfamily. They are known for their yellow and black striped bodies and aggressive behavior. While all yellow jackets are wasps, not all wasps are yellow jackets. The term “yellow jacket” is commonly used to refer to a few species of wasps that are particularly aggressive and can pose a nuisance, especially in late summer and early autumn when their populations peak.

8. What is the difference between wasps and hornets?

Hornets are another type of wasp, specifically belonging to the Vespa genus. They are generally larger than other wasp species and are known for their potent stings. Hornets often construct large nests and can be quite protective of their territories.  While all hornets are wasps, not all wasps are hornets.

Sources
  • Burnie, David & Wilson, Don, Animal, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.
  • Hickman et al, Integrated Principle of Zoology, McGraw Hill, Boston.