What to Know About Paper Wasps

Medically Reviewed by Sanjay Ponkshe on June 13, 2024
5 min read

Paper wasps are vespid (stinging) wasps that have long legs. These wasps are reddish-brown to black in color with yellow markings. The most common paper wasps are 5/8 to 3/4 inches in length. They're called paper wasps because they'll scrape wood from houses and chew it into a pulp to make paper-like nests shaped like umbrellas. 

The ideal paper wasp environment is a temperate climate, and they can be found in temperate regions all over the world. In the fall, the colony produces male wasps and special female wasps for reproduction. The males mate with the reproductive females. Then, the females leave to find a sheltered spot to wait out winter. 

The rest of the wasps die over the winter. In the spring, the females emerge from hiding and begin building a new nest instead of reusing the old and empty one from the previous year. 

After the female wasps finish building the first few cells, they lay tiny, whitish eggs that hatch within a few days. They feed chewed-up caterpillars to their wasp larvae. The larvae then seal their nest cells and grow into pupae. After they develop, they emerge from the nest and start gathering food and helping to grow the nest.

The original females remain in the nest and continue laying eggs. This cycle continues throughout the spring and summer. The nests usually grow up to 6–8 inches in diameter and house dozens of wasps.

During the fall, dozens or hundreds of reproductive females hang out around tall buildings or towers. Paper wasps are frequently seen on the upper stories of buildings or on transmission towers. Males will hang out near the swarming females and release pheromones. They're generally protective of the area where the females are.

Scientists don't understand exactly why they choose to swarm around tall structures. They may offer a substitute for tall trees. Some structures wasps tend to swarm around include: 

  • Amusement park rides
  • Grain storage towers
  • NASA launchpad towers
  • The tallest house in a neighborhood

After mating, the males die and the females find shelter for the winter. As the weather warms up, the females start gesturing for dominance. They start brandishing their stingers and abdomens at each other. When the females start building their nests, sometimes several of them will begin building a nest together, but the dominant queen will eventually take over. 

Paper wasps are social creatures and will vigorously defend their nests. They are most likely to sting when their nest is disturbed. They aren't aggressive when they're away from their nest. They also aren't likely to sting unless you step on them, trap them, or press them against your skin. 

Although it's not dangerous, paper wasps will scrape wood from your house or outbuilding to build their nests. They will also feed on fruit from your garden, which can be a nuisance. 

Paper wasps can be very beneficial to gardens despite their tendency to snack on fruit. They feed on insects that are considered pests in the garden, such as caterpillars, beetle larvae, and flies. They also assist in pollination by feeding on the nectar of flowers. If you find a nest in an out-of-the-way location where no one is likely to stumble upon it, you may want to leave it alone. 

Since you're most likely to be stung if you get near a nest, the best way to avoid a sting is to avoid disturbing their nest. You may get stung by stepping on one as well, so wearing shoes outside will protect your feet. 

If a paper wasp does attack you, you should cover your head and run into a protected area such as a car or building. They're most likely to attack your upper body and call for reinforcements if you don't leave the area. Staying in place and swatting at a paper wasp will only result in more stings. 

The nests of paper wasps are commonly found in the eaves of houses. They're also found in other areas protected from the elements such as: 

  • Attics
  • Garages
  • Storage sheds
  • Barns
  • Shrubbery
  • Trees

Queens who are looking for a place to spend the winter may join together in large groups. They prefer high places such as attics, chimneys, and tall buildings. During warmer winter periods, they frequently enter buildings, but they aren't aggressive. They can be captured and released outdoors or killed with a flyswatter.

Sometimes, during warm winter days, paper wasps will swarm around tall buildings or structures. They're not particularly aggressive during this time and are unlikely to attack. They'll go away at the end of the day when the temperatures drop. 

If you see several wasps flying around an area of your home, inspect any covered places in the area to see if you can find a nest. Look in hidden spots such as in attics, under deck rails, or under porch floors. If you find a nest that's just getting started, you may be able to knock it down with a broom. 

If you find a mature nest, you can spray it with an aerosol insecticide labeled for wasps and hornets. Spray the nest in the evening when the wasps are inside. Don't use a flashlight to illuminate the nest because it may attract the wasps. Wear protective clothing when you spray the nest, including long pants, a shirt with a collar and long sleeves, shoes, socks, and a hat. Make sure you don't stand directly underneath the nest when you spray it. 

After you kill the wasps, remove the nest to discourage other wasps from building more nests. If more colonies continue to nest in the same area, you may need to make some alterations to the area.  

If they're nesting in your attic, you can add screens to any openings to keep them out. If they're attaching to the exterior of your house, a coat of paint or varnish can make it harder for the wasps to stick their nest to that surface. Keeping the bushes around your house trimmed can help discourage them as well.