What to Know About Different Types of Wasps

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 30, 2022
5 min read

As summer ends, many people notice an increase in flying insects. Some of them are harmless, while others can sting or bite. One insect notorious for stinging people is the wasp. 

While these flying insects often incite panic and fear in people, many are harmless. Still, most people see all types of wasps as pests, regardless of how dangerous they are to humans.

Wasps are flying insects with stingers attached to their lower halves, and they are more prominent in the late summer months. Although wasps are annoying to most people, they perform essential services for the ecosystem, including pest control. Wasps hunt live prey, such as flies, spiders, and caterpillars, and feed them to younger wasps, keeping the population of these pests under control. 

What do adult wasps eat then? Wasps are also pollinators. Since adult wasps don't eat the prey they catch, they gather nectar from flowers, pollinating the flowers they visit. Unlike bees who choose their flowers carefully, wasps aren't picky and will visit and pollinate any flower. 

Some quick facts about where wasps live: 

  • Wasps build their nests in various settings, including on buildings, inside buildings, in trees, on the ground, and even in mud. Where a wasp chooses to nest will depend on the type of wasp. 
  • Although wasps are considered an aggressive species, they generally pose no risk to humans unless humans come close to their nests. 
  • If wasp nests are located around homes or places where humans frequent, the nests should be removed to prevent stings.

Not all wasps are the same, especially considering there are around 18,000 species in North America alone. Some are docile and harmless unless provoked, some are aggressive no matter the situation, and others are parasitic. Some have painful stings, while others don't. 

Some of the most common wasp types include yellow jackets and paper wasps. These two species are very similar, and many people get them confused. Despite similar colors and markings, they have a few differences that set them apart. 

Yellow jackets are known to be territorial and aggressive when defending their nests and foraging for food. They're most active in late summer and fall. There are several subspecies of yellow jackets, including the eastern yellow jacket, the southern yellow jacket, and the German yellow jacket. Their name comes from the yellow and black markings across their bodies. Worker yellow jackets grow to 0.5 inches in length. 

The yellow jacket nest is made from multilayered combs with a paper shell surrounding it. Eastern and southern yellow jackets build their nests in underground cavities, but German yellow jackets build theirs above ground. Larger nests can measure the size of a basketball and house 5,000 workers. 

Colonies usually reach their full population in late summer, when new queens and workers are produced. Once mating ends, queens hibernate to survive the winter while the rest of the colony dies off. Not all queens survive the winter months, but those that do start new colonies in spring. Previously used nests are abandoned, and new nests are formed. 

Paper wasps are similar in shape and color to yellow jackets. However, these wasps are usually bigger, reaching anywhere from 0.7 to 1.0 inches in length. They tend to build their nests around porches and other shelters, and their nests are single-layered and unprotected. Like yellow jackets, the queens are the only colony members to survive the colder months. 

Paper wasps are not known to be overly aggressive, unlike their yellow jacket counterpart. 

Other common wasp types:

  • Baldfaced hornets: Despite having "hornet" in their name, baldfaced hornets are actually wasps. They sport black and white markings along their faces and bodies. Baldfaced hornets like building nests high in trees and aren't aggressive unless you encounter their nest.
  • Cicada killer wasps: Cicada killer wasps are solitary and have their own burrows. However, it's not uncommon to see many burrows clustered together. Their favorite place to burrow is in dry soil, flower beds, or areas with scarce vegetation. Female cicada killers hunt and kill cicadas, then offer the meat to their young. Cicada killer wasps are large and come in two patterns: black, yellow, and red, and brown and yellow. They rarely sting and pose little threat to humans.
  • European hornets: Hornets aren't native to North America, but the European hornet can now be found throughout the United States. One species is the European hornet, which has a smooth body adorned with black and yellow stripes. Because of their appearance, they're sometimes mistaken for yellow jackets. However, they prefer to build their nests deep underground, forage through the day and night, and are usually aggressive only when provoked.
  • Maud dauber wasp: Maud dauber wasps are either black or metallic blue and are thread-waisted. They're not aggressive or protective over their nests, so they rarely sting. Their favorite nesting areas are in places with access to mud, such as underneath bridges, under eaves, or in attics.

Some people mistake wasps with common bees such as honey bees and bumblebees. The main difference in identifying a wasp vs. a bee is their body. Wasps generally have harder and shinier bodies, while bees are covered in tiny hairs. Bees are often rounder than wasps, too.

Wasps are predators who hunt other insects and spiders, and some are aggressive even when unprovoked. Bees feed on nectar and pollen and are not as aggressive as wasps. Finally, wasps build their nests in tiers of rounded combs and out of chewy, saliva-filled wood fibers, while bees make their hive out of wax.

Wasps tend to be protective of their nests. People who come in contact with a nest or are even near one risk getting stung. If the nest isn't near human buildings or walkways, it's best to leave it alone. But many nests are built in heavily trafficked areas, such as near doorways, and should be removed to minimize the risk of getting stung. 

Depending on where the nest is, or if you're not comfortable dealing with it yourself, it may be best to call a pest management professional. If you're allergic to stings, you should avoid dealing with nests on your own.

Otherwise, there are a few steps you should take when dealing with eliminating a nest: 

  • Wear protective clothing: Protective clothing can provide a barrier between the wasp's stinger and your skin. Wear long sleeves and pants, and tie the sleeves and pant legs shut to eliminate the possibility of a wasp entering your clothes.
  • Choose the time wisely: Wasps are less active during the late evening and early morning hours, so it's best to eliminate nests during these less active hours.
  • Gather your supplies: Exposed nests can be treated with a wasp and hornet aerosol spray. For nests that are underground, you can use insecticide dust.

If there are still active wasps after the first treatment, repeat the treatment as necessary.