You can distinguish them by their nests, wings and color.

April 29, 2010

by Helen Boatman,
Victoria County Master Gardener

edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardener
Commonly referred to as a yellowjacket, this paper wasp has colored wings instead of the clear wings characteristic of the southern yellowjacket.
We are all thankful for the rain we received this winter, and happy that the freezes didn't kill all of our landscape plants.

It will be interesting to see how the freeze affected the insect population, particularly the wasp population.

I once had an entomology (the study of insects) professor say that if all but 2 percent of the insects in the world were killed, the number would recover the following year. We'll see.

Wasps can be troublesome because of their sting. Some people have an allergic reaction that can be life-threatening.

If left alone, however, they can be placed in the beneficial insect category. An example is with webworms that attack pecan, ash and other trees.

Next time you have webworms, disturb the web with a long stick and just sit back and watch the wasps start to enter and carry off the caterpillars to feed their larvae in their wasp nests.

Untrue Yellowjackets

The yellow and brownish/black wasps we call "yellowjackets" (Polistes exclamans), and find on nests around our house and landscape, are really not true yellowjackets, but "paper wasps."

What many call "red wasps" (Polistes Carolina) are closely related and are also known as paper wasps, only they are a red species versus yellow.

The main distinguishing feature between these yellow and red paper wasps and yellowjackets is their nest. Paper wasps' nests are made by a single queen that has over-wintered in the area.

Nests are built from wood fiber that is mixed with saliva and built in a protected area, such as a roof overhang, protected patio or containerized plant on a patio. They also like to build under patio chairs and tables.

Be sure to check in all these places your family uses. The nest hangs downward from a single stalk and has open cells.

Eggs are laid in these cells and when hatched, the larvae are fed caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae. When the paper wasp larvae are ready to pupate, or go to the next stage of becoming a wasp, a white paper-like covering is placed over the cells.

Worker wasps will emerge in about 30 days. These workers will then help enlarge the nest, and the cycle continues with the nest and colony becoming larger until late summer, when the colony will begin to decline.

A single queen will leave to overwinter; however, the remainder of the colony will not survive the winter.

True Yellowjackets

The southern yellowjacket looks somewhat similar to paper wasps, but they have clear wings and are not as commonly found.

Unlike the paper wasp's open nest, the yellowjacket's is quite different. It may be found underground, and sometimes in walls. The nest is made of cells like the paper wasp; however, the main difference is that it is completely covered by a papery shell with only one entrance (similar to a hornet's nest).

The yellowjacket also feeds its larvae caterpillars, flies and beetle larvae. Because their nests are in protected areas, the yellowjacket colony can survive for several years and become quite large, up to 100,000 workers.

You don't want to disturb this colony of wasps as the sheer numbers can be overwhelming.

Like the paper wasp, they will defend their nest if disturbed. Both are capable of delivering multiple stings.

Mud Daubers

Though not a paper wasp, the mud dauber is another wasp we often see in our area. Its color is solid black. This is another industrious wasp, carrying bits of mud it mixes with saliva to build hard nests in protected areas, usually on walls and ceilings.

It does not build colonies, instead each female works alone. As each cell is built, an egg is laid.

A caterpillar or spider that has been stung into a paralyzed state is placed inside the cell and then sealed.

After the egg hatches, the larva feeds on the caterpillar or spider. The new mud dauber will emerge from its cell. Mud daubers do not defend their nests and rarely sting.

Cicada Killer

Wow, what a name. That is exactly what they do - go after the cicadas. You know the sound of cicadas - the sound of summer - that sound we hear in the heat of summer, in July and August, when the cicadas appear.

The cicada killer wasp lives underground (usually in our yard) in a pupal stage, as does the cicada, and hatches about the same time. It is a large wasp, larger than the paper wasps or yellowjacket, but has the same general coloration.

It is not aggressive. Its main objective is to find cicadas, inject a paralyzing sting, and drag them back into their underground burrow, which will feed the next generation of cicada killers.

Wasps are Beneficial

If you notice, most of the wasps mentioned, and there are others which space does not allow me to cover, feed mainly on caterpillars. Although many caterpillars become our beautiful butterflies, caterpillars do much damage to our food plants and garden plants. Nature has an amazing way of keeping an important balance of things in our environment.

Remember, the wasps are not out to "get us," however, if we or our pets get in their way, they are going to respond to that interference by a nasty sting.

So, if they decide to build their nest in a place that is inconvenient to you, then remove them. However, if a nest is found in an out-of-the-way area that is in no danger of harming your family, then let them do their thing as nature intended by ridding your garden and landscape of unwanted caterpillars and insects.
Paper Wasps:

Yellowjackets (a misnomer) - Open paper nest hangs downward in landscape

Red wasps - Open paper nest hangs downward in landscape

Yellowjackets (true species) - Enclosed paper nest in the ground or structure

Mud Daubers - Mud constructed nest under eaves/structures

Cicada Killers - Nests underground

More Info - go to
(Type in "Wasps" - Search for E-239)
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