Common Wasp: All You Need to Know – Essential Facts and Tips

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The common wasp, also known as the yellowjacket, is a flying insect that can be identified by its distinctive black and yellow markings. Belonging to the same order, Hymenoptera, as bees and ants, these wasps serve as important pollinators, helping plants produce fruits and seeds.

While common wasps share similarities with bees, one notable feature that sets them apart is their body: wasps have smooth bodies, while bees have hairier ones to collect pollen and nectar. Additionally, wasps are known for their slender to stout body shapes, which can range from less than half an inch to one and a half inches long, displaying various colors like black and yellow or black and red.

Common Wasp Overview

Wasps vs Bees

Wasps and bees are both insects belonging to the order Hymenoptera, but they differ in several characteristics. Some key differences between them include:

  • Appearance: Wasps typically have a smooth and shiny body with few hairs, whereas bees are hairy and carry pollen on their bodies.
  • Diet: Wasps are generally carnivorous, feeding on other insects, while bees are herbivores that consume nectar and pollen from flowers.
  • Aggressiveness: Wasps are known to be more aggressive than bees, defending their nests or stinging when they feel threatened.
Features Wasps Bees
Appearance Smooth and shiny body; few hairs Hairy; carry pollen
Diet Carnivorous (feed on other insects) Herbivores (consume nectar and pollen)
Aggressiveness More aggressive Less aggressive

Social vs Solitary Wasps

Wasps can be categorized into two main groups: social wasps and solitary wasps. Here are their main distinctions:

  • Social Wasps: Live in colonies and have a structured hierarchy consisting of a queen, workers, and males. Examples include yellowjackets and hornets.
  • Solitary Wasps: Do not form colonies and often hunt for their prey independently. Examples include thread-waisted wasps (Sphecidae) and digger wasps (Crabronidae).

Characteristics of social wasps:

  • Live in colonies
  • Structured hierarchy (queen, workers, males)
  • Examples: yellowjackets, hornets

Characteristics of solitary wasps:

  • Do not form colonies
  • Hunt independently
  • Examples: thread-waisted wasps, digger wasps

Physical Description

Coloration and Markings

Common wasps, such as yellowjackets, paper wasps, and hornets, are visually striking. Specifically, these wasps usually have black and yellow markings, while red wasps can have black and red coloration.

  • Common yellowjacket: black and yellow stripes
  • Red paper wasp: black and red coloration

Abdomens and Waist

Wasps belonging to the Vespidae family, like Vespula and Dolichovespula, have some distinguishing features. One of them is their slim waist, which separates their thorax and abdomen.

Wasp Type Waist Description
Yellowjacket Narrow waist
Hornets Slightly thicker waist than a yellowjacket
Paper wasp Slim, elongated waist

These slim waists provide enhanced agility, making it easier for common wasps to catch prey and navigate their environment.

Behavior and Habits

Nesting and Hives

The common wasp establishes its nest in various locations, such as trees, bushes, or even within building crevices. Nests are constructed from chewed wood fibers, creating a paper-like material that forms a protective shell around the colony. Here are a few key features of wasp nests:

  • Made of paper-like material
  • Can be found in trees, bushes, and building crevices
  • Contain multiple hexagonal cells for larvae

For example, the paper wasp builds its nest in a single exposed layer, while the yellowjacket’s nests can have multiple layers and be hidden.

Feeding Patterns

Common wasps have a varied diet, mainly preying on insects such as caterpillars, flies, and crickets. While adult wasps feed on nectar, their larvae consume insect protein provided by the adults.

Type of Wasp Prey Feeding on Nectar
Common Wasp Insects Yes
Yellowjacket Insects and Garbage Yes
Paper Wasp Caterpillars Yes

In conclusion, understanding the behavior and habits of common wasps can help in managing their presence and recognizing their role as pollinators and natural pest controllers.

Stinging and Threats

Reasons for Stinging

  • Defense: Common wasps, like yellowjackets and paper wasps, will sting to protect their nests or themselves if disturbed or threatened 1.
  • Accidental contact: If a wasp feels trapped or cornered, it might sting as a defense mechanism.

Pain and Symptoms

  • Initial pain: Wasp stings cause a sharp, burning pain immediately followed by redness and swelling 2.
  • Secondary symptoms: Other common symptoms include itching, warmth, and mild discomfort at the site of the sting for several hours.

Allergic Reactions

  • Some individuals can experience severe allergic reactions to wasp stings, resulting in anaphylaxis 3.
  • Symptoms of anaphylaxis:
    • Shortness of breath
    • Swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
    • Rapid heart rate
    • Confusion or dizziness
  • Seek immediate medical attention if these symptoms arise.

Preventing and Treating Stings

Self-Defense Methods

To avoid wasp stings:

  • Stay calm and move away slowly if a wasp approaches you.
  • Avoid swatting at wasps, as it can provoke them to sting.
  • Wear light-colored clothing, as wasps are attracted to bright colors.
  • Use insect repellent to deter wasps.
  • Keep food and drinks covered outdoors, as wasps are drawn to sweet smells.

First Aid Treatments

1. Ice

After a wasp sting:

  • Apply an ice pack or a cold cloth to the sting area.
  • Keep the ice on for 10-15 minutes to reduce swelling and numb pain.

2. Soap and Water

Immediately after being stung:

  • Wash the sting site with soap and water.
  • Cleaning the area helps prevent infection.

3. Antihistamine

To alleviate itching and swelling:

  • Take an over-the-counter antihistamine.
  • Apply a topical antihistamine cream to the sting area.

4. Medical Attention

Seek medical attention if:

  • You experience trouble breathing, chest pain, or other severe symptoms.
  • You’ve been stung multiple times, as this can increase the risk of complications.
Situation Action
Wasp approaches Stay calm, move away slowly
Wasp sting Apply ice, wash with soap and water
Itching and swelling Use antihistamine
Difficulty breathing Seek medical attention

In conclusion, preventing wasp stings includes staying calm, avoiding bright clothing, and using insect repellent. Treat stings with ice, soap and water, and antihistamines. Seek medical attention if necessary.

Common Wasp Lifecycle

Eggs and Larvae

Common wasps, like yellowjackets, begin their lifecycle as eggs. The queen lays her eggs into individual cells of the nest, using her ovipositor to deposit them. Some key features of eggs and larvae include:

  • Eggs are laid by the queen
  • Larvae emerge from eggs and are fed by workers

Once the eggs hatch, the larvae emerge and are cared for by worker wasps. These workers collect insects and other food items to feed the larvae. In return, the larvae secrete a sweet substance that workers consume.

Males and Mated Females

As the colony grows, new castes develop including males and mated females. Some characteristics of these individuals are:

  • Males emerge from unfertilized eggs
  • Males have a slender thorax and no ovipositor
  • Males’ main role is to mate with new queens

Mated females, or new queens, develop from fertilized eggs. They have the ability to start a new colony after mating. A comparison of males and mated females:

Males Mated Females
Origin Unfertilized eggs Fertilized eggs
Role Mating Starting new colonies
Physical traits Slender thorax, no ovipositor Similar to worker, but larger

Once the mating season is over, the old queen, males, and workers die, leaving only the mated females alive to start new colonies the following spring.

Human and Wasp Interactions

Pollination and Pest Control

Wasps are essential pollinators and play a vital role in maintaining the ecosystem by pollinating flowers and controlling pest populations. Some wasp species, like parasitoid wasps, are particularly helpful in pest control by laying their eggs inside pests, which their larvae consume.

For example, the eastern cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus) is a non-aggressive solitary wasp species that predates on cicadas. This type of wasp is considered beneficial for controlling cicada populations.

Pros:

  • Excellent pollinators
  • Effective pest control agents

Cons:

  • Some wasp species can be aggressive
  • Some people are allergic to wasp stings
Wasp Species Pollination Pest Control Aggressiveness
Parasitoid Wasps Yes High Low
Eastern Cicada Killer Yes Moderate Low

Dealing with Nests

When dealing with wasp nests, the level of aggressiveness varies between species. Many social wasps have nests with a petiole and can be defensive when their nests are threatened. Here are ways to deal with wasp nests:

  • Leave it alone: Most solitary wasps, which are non-aggressive, require minimal interference.

  • Call a professional: When dealing with aggressive social wasp species, it’s safer to call an expert for nest removal or relocation.

Interesting Wasp Facts

Geographical Distribution

  • Common wasps are found across the globe, with different species inhabiting various environments.
  • Southern California is home to several species of wasps, including the western yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica) and the German yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria).
  • Entomologists study the behavior, distribution, and habitat of wasps as part of their research.

Unique Wasps

Western Yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica)

  • Native species to Southern California
  • Predominant species in Los Angeles
  • Recognizable by their black and yellow bodies
  • Can cause itching, rapid heart rate, and diarrhea if stung

German Yellowjacket (Dolichovespula arenaria)

  • An invasive species in the United States
  • Can be found in urban areas and city parks
  • Distinguished by their black and yellow bands on the abdomen
  • Attracted to sweet foods and human activities

Pheromones and Infographics

  • Wasps use pheromones for communication
  • Identifying wasp species can be facilitated by utilizing infographics to differentiate between the native and invasive populations
Characteristics Western Yellowjacket German Yellowjacket
Origin Native Invasive
Habitat Southern California, urban Urban areas, city parks
Appearance Black and yellow body Black and yellow bands
Reaction to human areas Predominant in Los Angeles Attracted to human activity
Sting Symptoms Itching, rapid heart rate Similar symptoms to native

Footnotes

  1. Paper Wasps, Yellowjackets, and Other Stinging Wasps

  2. Wasps and Bees | UMN Extension

  3. Bees and Wasps | Washington State Department of Health

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Common Wasp from England

 

Subject: bug identification
Location: Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England
February 8, 2016 5:32 am
Please could you take a look at the attached picture of an insect which was in my friends house and identify it for her please? Apparent his is the second one she has had. It looks like some sort of bee to me but I’m not sure.
Signature: Nicola Bailey-Berry

Common Wasp
Common Wasp

Dear Nicola,
Today we learned that insects known as Yellow Jackets in North America are called Common Wasps in England.  We identified your Common Wasp,
Vespula vulgaris, thanks to the iSpot site where it states:  ” The common wasp usually forms large colonies below ground, but occasionally nests may be made in wall cavities, hollow trees and attics. Queens emerge from hibernation during the spring, and they search for a suitable location in which to start a new colony. She then begins to build the nest with chewed up wood pulp, which dries to make a papery substance. A few eggs are laid, which develop into non-reproductive workers. These workers eventually take over the care of the nest, and the queen’s life is then devoted solely to egg laying. At the end of autumn a number of eggs develop into new queens and males, which leave the nest and mate. The new queens seek out suitable places in which to hibernate, and the males and the old colony (including the old queen) die.”  We suspect the individual found by your friend is a hibernating queen that will soon begin to construct her own nest when the weather warms.  North American Yellow Jackets, and we suspect your Common Wasp as well, are not normally aggressive, though they will defend the nest by stinging any perceived or actual threats.  Getty Images has a nice image of a nest of Common Wasps.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Common Wasp from England

 

Subject: bug identification
Location: Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England
February 8, 2016 5:32 am
Please could you take a look at the attached picture of an insect which was in my friends house and identify it for her please? Apparent his is the second one she has had. It looks like some sort of bee to me but I’m not sure.
Signature: Nicola Bailey-Berry

Common Wasp
Common Wasp

Dear Nicola,
Today we learned that insects known as Yellow Jackets in North America are called Common Wasps in England.  We identified your Common Wasp,
Vespula vulgaris, thanks to the iSpot site where it states:  ” The common wasp usually forms large colonies below ground, but occasionally nests may be made in wall cavities, hollow trees and attics. Queens emerge from hibernation during the spring, and they search for a suitable location in which to start a new colony. She then begins to build the nest with chewed up wood pulp, which dries to make a papery substance. A few eggs are laid, which develop into non-reproductive workers. These workers eventually take over the care of the nest, and the queen’s life is then devoted solely to egg laying. At the end of autumn a number of eggs develop into new queens and males, which leave the nest and mate. The new queens seek out suitable places in which to hibernate, and the males and the old colony (including the old queen) die.”  We suspect the individual found by your friend is a hibernating queen that will soon begin to construct her own nest when the weather warms.  North American Yellow Jackets, and we suspect your Common Wasp as well, are not normally aggressive, though they will defend the nest by stinging any perceived or actual threats.  Getty Images has a nice image of a nest of Common Wasps.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Crabronid Wasp from Florida

 

Subject: Unknown flying bug
Location: Bristol, Florida
December 19, 2012 12:51 pm
I live in Bristol, FL, in a residential area of town and It’s the middle of December here.These bugs have recently shown up around my homer and I was wondering if you could help identify them.
Signature: Reba

Unknown Black Wasp

Hi Reba,
This is some species of Wasp, and we suspect it is a parasitic Hymenopteran.  Perhaps it is numerous because there is also a population increase in its host.  We are contacting Eric Eaton to see if he can assist in this identification.

Thank you for your help.  Now that I have its name, I can do some research.
Love, Reba

Eric Eaton writes back
Happy holidays to you, too, Daniel!
Nice image, but pretty dark.  It is definitely something in the Crabronidae family, perhaps related to the Larrini tribe.  I’d have to put the thing under a microscope, and might still not know what it is.  Matthias Buck at the Alberta Royal Museum might recognize it, though.
Eric

Hi again Reba,
Eric Eaton provided us with a family of Crabronidae, and the two subfamilies that seem likeliest to us are Astatinae, which BugGuide states “members of this group provision there larvae exclusively with Heteroptera. Nymphs and adults of the following families have been recorded: Pentatomidae, Scutelleridae, Lygaeidae, Reduviidae, Cydnidae, Alydidae, and Rhopalidae”
or the Aphid Wasps in the subfamily Pemphredoninae, also represented on BugGuide.  Either possibility includes beneficial species that prey upon insects considered plant pests in the garden.

Authors

  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

    View all posts
  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

    View all posts
Tags: Common Wasp

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