Wasp Identification


Wasps are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem. Different species of wasps include yellowjackets, hornets, paper wasps, mud wasps, potter wasps, pollen wasps, and bald-faced wasps. Though they have different aggression levels, all of these wasps can inflict a painful sting.

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    How to Identify a Wasp?

    Wasps look similar to bees but have a few distinct differences. They have long, slender bodies with sparse hair. Wasps may be solid black, solid yellow, or bright yellow-orange or yellow and black with stripes. When wasps fly, they let their legs hang down.

    Bees are hairy and plump. They’re usually yellow and black, and their legs are tucked in when they fly.

    What Are the Most Common Types of Wasps?

    There are over 10,000 wasps in the world. The most common kinds of wasps are paper wasps, which can also be easily confused with yellow jackets. Many wasps look similar, but they have different purposes and aggression levels.

    Some wasps pollinate directly, but most of them provide natural pest control. They either kill insects and invertebrates to feed larvae, or they use the host body to lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, they consume the insect or invertebrate and emerge.

    wasp identification leaf


    The yellowjacket is a common wasp that most people know. These bright yellow wasps are aggressive and can sting repeatedly, leading many to fear them.

    A yellowjacket is a social wasp and is considered Vespula and Dolichovespula. They are smaller but more aggressive than other wasps, which leaves many afraid of them. Despite their small size, yellowjackets pack powerful venom in their stings that can cause an allergic reaction in some people and animals.

    How to Identify a Yellowjacket?

    One of the best ways to identify a yellow is by its segmented bodies and long wings. They will always fold their wings downwards when resting. They have mostly yellow markings with some black stripes occasionally. Like other wasps, they will not have any hair or fuzz. Adult yellowjackets are 3/8ths to 5/8ths of an inch in length.

    How Big Is a Yellowjacket Colony or Nest?

    Like bees, yellowjackets live in large colonies. One colony can have thousands of members. A nest typically holds between 500 and 15,000 yellow jackets. The bigger a nest gets, the more members it can hold. 

    Where Do Yellowjackets Live?

    Yellowjackets can usually be found near humans. They’re attracted to human food, which brings to them garbage bins or compost with food scraps that they can bring to their larvae. 

    What Does Yellowjacket Nest Look Like?

    Yellowjackets love to build nests on walls or in corners. Their nests will look like a paper version of a beehive constructed against a wall or somewhere structurally stable. They also may choose to move to a ground location, which can be dangerous for humans. With a nest in the ground, humans and pets are more likely to encounter the nest without realizing it, prompting defensive swarming from the wasps.

    Do Yellowjackets Sting?

    Yellowjackets will sting, but unlike bees, they can sting multiple times. They do not lose their stingers like honey bees. Since they are more aggressive than bees and sting multiple times, they can cause a lot of pain or a severe allergic reaction in humans and pets. People may encounter the nest while doing yard work or unknowingly disturbing a ground nest.



    Hornets are among the most aggressive wasps. Here are how to identify them and some of their main characteristics. 

    In appearance, hornets look like yellowjackets only with a few key differences. They have more intense black and yellow stripes than yellowjackets and their body shapes differ drastically. They have a longer abdomen than a yellow jacket, making them appear much bigger. Hornets can reach up to 2.2 inches in length.

    How to Identify a Hornet?

    Hornets have long bodies, a lack of hair, black eyes, and longer legs than other wasps. They also have two large, noticeable eyes on the side of their head. If the wasp is bigger than an average fingernail, it is probably a hornet and not a yellow jacket.  

    How Big Is a Hornet’s Colony?

    Unlike other colonies, a hornet’s nest will be much more modest. Nests only hold between 100 to 700 worker hornets and will grow to the size of a soccer ball. Larger nests are uncommon, but they may be used to hold thousands of hornets. This is usually found in remote environments that don’t have a lot of human activity. 

    Where Do Hornets Live?

    These wasps live all over North America, making them a common sight for people in the US. They can be found in meadows, orchards, woodland areas, playgrounds, and cemeteries. They will build their nests in a structurally secure place and thrive as long as they can scavenge, hunt, and ingest nectar or sucrose. 

    What Does a Hornet Nest Look Like?

    Most hornets’ nests are made of wood and look like circular balls. A hornet’s nest is typically the size of a soccer ball, but it may grow larger to accommodate the colony. Nests look like they’re made of paper and have a small hole to allow wasps to enter and exit. 

    Do Hornets Sting?

    Like other wasps, hornets can and will sting when they feel threatened. They have smooth stingers, unlike honey bees, and will not lose their stingers as they sting. Because of this, they can sting multiple times without issue.

    wasp identification paper
    Paper Wasp

    Paper Wasps

    While most wasps are black and yellow, some species come in different colours like solid black, red, or yellow. These wasps may look more like flying ants than wasps or bees. 

    A paper wasp is known as a vespid wasp. Most other wasps on this list are also vespid wasps. They are just as aggressive as other wasps. 

    How to Identify a Paper Wasp?

    Paper wasps are easy to identify based on their long, brown, smooth bodies. They don’t have hair like bees. The key difference between paper wasps and the other wasps is that they’re more brown with hints of yellow. Most other wasps will be yellow and black. 

    How Big Is a Paper Wasp’s Colony?

    These are not as social as other wasps. In fact, their colonies or nests tend to be some of the smallest among wasp species. Their nest will only have between 100 to 200 workers. Some larger nests may have up to 400 cells, but that is not as common. 

    Where Do Paper Wasps Live?

    Like other wasps, paper wasps will make nests near humans. They can be found near homes, woodland areas, parks, and other places that people visit frequently, which gives them access to human food scraps. 

    What Does a Paper Wasp Nest Look Like?

    Paper wasps were given the nickname “umbrella wasps,” as their nests resemble umbrellas made of paper. The cells of the hive may be visible. However, these are territorial creatures and will not like anyone observing or approaching their nests. If provoked, they may sting. 

    Do Paper Wasps Sting?

    Paper wasps do sting like other wasps but, compared to others, their venom is mild. This may be one of the less harmful wasps, but they are still aggressive.

    wasp identification mud
    Mud Wasp

    Mud Wasps

    Mud wasps have a unique look compared to other wasps. Their distinctive shape and colours make them easy to identify. These wasps are very social and they will protect their nests at all costs, but tend to be less aggressive than other wasps when they’re away from their homes. 

    A mud wasp is considered Sphecidae or Crabronidae. Both of these are considered one family by most of the scientific community, but some researchers may identify them separately. These are some of the most docile wasps.

    How to Identify a Mud Wasp?

    Mud wasps have black bodies and yellow legs. Their thorax is long and spindly. It almost looks like their body is separated because of how wiry the thorax is. They are long, slender, hairless, and only 1 to 1.5 inches long. 

    How Big Is a Mud Wasp Colony?

    Mud wasps are not as social as other wasps and part of the reason for that is that their nests are not as big as others. Each wasp will create a tube made from mud and only one wasp lives inside each tube or pipe. Sometimes, they will have clusters of up to five but it can be hard to find a bigger colony similar in size to that of yellow jackets. This is one of the key differences between mud wasps and other wasps. 

    Where Do Mud Wasps Live?

    Mud wasps are also called “mud daubers.” They live throughout North America. Like other wasps, they love to be near humans and will build their nests against houses and stable structures. They can be seen on buildings, trees, parks, and in barns. 

    What Does a Mud Wasp Nest Look Like?

    Mud wasps create unique nests that differentiate them from other types of wasps. Individual wasps will build a tube or pipe right next to the other. Each tube will hold only one wasp. When a few mud wasps construct nests next to each other, it will look like a pan flute made out of the mud. 

    Do Mud Wasps Sting?

    Mud wasps will only sting if humans get too close to their nests. They are very protective over the nest they build, but other than that, they are not as aggressive as other wasps. Their stings may also only cause a slight itch or swelling, compared to the severe pain of hornets or yellow jackets. They may only sting once, but like other wasps, they can sting multiple times without losing their stingers. 

    wasp identification potter
    Potter Wasp

    Potter Wasps

    Potter wasps are closely related to mud wasps and are easier to identify because of the markings on their bodies. 

    Potter wasps are related to mud wasps because they are in the Eumeninae subfamily, which is under the Vespidae family. They are solitary wasps and not as social as yellow jackets or hornets.

    How to Identify a Potter Wasp?

    While they may look a lot like mud wasps, potter wasps are much smaller. They are only between 3/8″ to 3/4″ long, have a spindly thorax and like to feed on nectar. They can be identified by their mostly dark bodies and ivory-looking markings on their abdomens. They do sometimes have yellow markings mixed in.

    How Big Is a Potter Wasp Colony?

    Potter wasps will have a nest the size of a cherry tomato, but they will eventually grow to the size of a small football. The nest may only hold between 20 and 75 wasps at a time. They are not as social as other types of wasps. 

    Where Do Potter Wasps Live?

    In the US, there are over 270 kinds of potter wasps. They live mostly in the northern hemisphere. Potter wasps love to forage for other things besides human food scraps. They are present near woodland areas and meadows with flowers. 

    What Does a Potter Wasp Nest Look Like?

    Their nest is easily identifiable by the pot shape they create. Nests look like paper-mache pots.

    Do Potter Wasps Sting?

    This type of wasp rarely stings people. If provoked, they can sting multiple times without losing their stingers. 

    wasp identification bald faced
    Bald Faced Hornet

    Bald-Faced Hornets

    The bald-faced hornet has earned a reputation for being one of the most dangerous types of wasps, due to its size, aggression, and venom potency. 

    These hornets are technically a type of yellowjacket, but they are larger and much more aggressive. They are part of the Vespula and Dolichovespula families. Bald-faced wasps are well-known because of their aggressive behaviour and odd colourings. 

    How to Identify a Bald-Faced Hornet?

    A bald-faced hornet can be identified by its plump size, which stands out compared to the slender bodies of most wasps. They are mostly black with just a few yellow markings and a white face. Their bodies resemble a yellowjacket’s build, but the difference is in the markings.

    How Big Is a Bald-Faced Hornet’s Colony?

    The bald-faced hornet’s nest can become massive if left alone. If the building starts in the spring, then by the end of summer, it can grow to the size of a football. Nests can hold as many as 700 hornets, but they may have more than that. They are somewhat social but not as social as yellowjackets. 

    Where Do Bald-Faced Hornets Live?

    Bald-faced hornets mostly live on the West Coast of the United States. More specifically near the Rocky Mountains all the way up to some parts of Canada. It is rare to find them on the East Coast of North America.

    What Does a Bald-Faced Wasp Nest Look Like?

    Bald-faced hornet nests can be a massive spiral shape, with a small opening in the front to allow individuals to enter and exit. They will look like they’re made of paper and scavenged materials. Their nests can be found mostly in shrubs and tree hollows. Occasionally, they will be built next to houses, which can pose a problem for humans and pets.

    Do Bald-Faced Hornets Sting?

    Bald-faced hornets are highly aggressive and can sting multiple times without losing their stingers. They are fiercely protective of the hive and are likely to sting anything they perceive as a threat, even if it isn’t one.

    The Vastly Diverse Wasp Family

    Each type of wasp has different bodily markings and sizes that can help you identify them. Some species are more aggressive than others, but most wasps behave in the same way.

    While bald-faced hornets should be avoided at all costs, other types of wasps, such as the yellowjacket and paper wasp, help rid gardens of plant-killing pests and maintain a balanced, local ecosystem.

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