Common Wasp vs Yellow Jacket: Uncovering Key Differences

folder_openHymenoptera, Insecta
comment2 Comments

Wasp species like the common wasp and yellow jacket can cause confusion due to their similarities in appearance and behavior. However, understanding the key differences between these two types of wasps can help you identify them and respond appropriately to their presence.

The common wasp (also known as paper wasps) can vary in color, including yellow, brown, red, and black. Their distinguishing feature is their slender body, measuring about 3/4 inches in length. Paper wasps build a single open-faced comb nest, usually made of paper, often found attached to building eaves. These wasps are beneficial as they are predators, feeding on flies, caterpillars, and spiders, thus controlling pest populations. However, when threatened, they can be aggressive and sting in defense of their nest.

On the other hand, yellow jackets are more stout and typically banded in black and yellow. Their nests are usually found underground, and locating their nests can be difficult, having just a single entrance. Yellow jackets can also become pests when scavenging for food, especially during picnics or when they find exposed trash cans. They are known to be more aggressive than paper wasps and can sting multiple times, which can be hazardous for those with allergies or sensitive skin.

In summary, common wasps and yellow jackets have unique features and behaviors that can help in differentiating them. Being aware of their distinctions can be useful in determining whether they are beneficial insects to have around or a potential nuisance that needs to be managed.

Common Wasp Vs Yellow Jacket

Identification and Appearance

Common Wasp

  • Slender body
  • Thin waist
  • Smooth and shiny appearance
  • Legs not dangling during flight

Example: Paper wasps

Yellow Jacket

  • Shorter, thicker body
  • Segmented bodies
  • Legs dangling during flight
  • Aggressive in nature

Example: Vespula germanica

Size and Body Structure

Common Wasp Yellow Jacket
Body Structure Slender body with a narrow waist Shorter, thicker bodies with segments
Size Varies from 1/2 inch to nearly 1 inch Approximately 1/2 inch

Source

Color and Markings

Common Wasp

  • Black and yellow or cream bands
  • May have additional colors, like red or brown

Yellow Jacket

  • Predominantly yellow with black markings

Both common wasps and yellow jackets are insect predators, feeding on various insects. While they share similar feeding habits, common wasps tend to be more docile compared to aggressive yellow jackets, which are notorious for stinging when their nests are threatened.

Common wasps may build their nests above ground, in sheltered areas, whereas yellow jackets create ground nests, with a single entrance that serves as both an entry and exit point for the insects.

Habitat and Nesting

Nest Types and Locations

Common Wasps:

  • Build umbrella-shaped nests
  • Commonly found in trees, shrubs, and man-made structures

Yellow Jackets:

  • Construct underground nests
  • Found in soil, tree logs, and occasionally in wall cavities of buildings

Examples of common wasp nest locations include attics, garden sheds, and under the eaves of houses. On the other hand, yellow jacket nests are commonly found in rodent burrows, tree stumps, and rock wall crevices.

Underground and Above Ground Nesting

Underground Nesting:

  • Mainly associated with yellow jackets
  • Old rodent burrows, shallow holes in the ground, or tree stumps are common locations

Above Ground Nesting:

  • Commonly seen in other wasps, such as paper wasps and mud daubers
  • Nests built using material like tree sap, chewed wood fibers, or mud

Both common wasps and yellow jackets live in social colonies in the northern hemisphere, consisting of a mated queen, her male drones, and worker wasps.

Comparison Table

Feature Common Wasp Yellow Jacket
Nest Type Umbrella-shaped, made of chewed wood fibers Underground, built with a paper-like material
Nest Location Trees, shrubs, man-made structures Soil, tree logs, wall cavities
Habitat Northern hemisphere Northern hemisphere
Interaction with Humans Generally peaceful unless threatened Can be more aggressive, especially when defending the nest

Characteristics of common wasp nests:

  • Umbrella-shaped
  • Above ground
  • Made of chewed wood fibers

Characteristics of yellow jacket nests:

  • Underground or in wall cavities
  • Made of a paper-like material
  • Can house thousands of individuals

While both types of wasps can be beneficial for controlling other insect populations, caution should be taken when dealing with their nests, as they will sting when they feel threatened.

Behavior and Diet

Feeding Habits

Both common wasps and yellowjackets have similar feeding habits, requiring a mix of protein and sugar sources. Typical food sources include:

  • Protein: Predominantly for larvae, obtained from insects, flies, and spiders.
  • Sugar: Mainly for adults, obtained from plant nectar, fruits, and tree sap.

Nectar feeding by these wasps also contributes to pollination.

Predatory and Defensive Behavior

Common wasps, such as paper wasps, are generally less aggressive than yellowjackets. However, when their nest is threatened, up to 75 paper wasps may sting in defense. In contrast, yellowjackets can become aggressive picnic pests when foraging for food.

Feature Common Wasps (e.g., Paper Wasps) Yellowjackets
Aggressiveness Less aggressive, sting when nest threatened More aggressive, can be picnic pests
Nest Paper nest, usually attached to eaves Can build ground or aerial nests
Color Various (e.g., yellow, brown, red, black) Banded in black and yellow/cream tones
Size Slender, up to 3/4 inches long Smaller, up to 1/2 inch long

Both common wasps and yellowjackets can cause painful stings and, in some cases, severe allergic reactions in humans. While they can be a nuisance, it’s important to remember that they are beneficial insects, acting as predators of pest insects and also performing pollination.

Life Cycle and Reproduction

Colony Development

In wasps and yellowjackets, colony development begins with the queen building a nest to lay eggs. Here’s a comparison of their respective nests:

Wasp Nest Yellowjacket Nest
Size Smaller, open comb Larger, enclosed
Shape Often umbrella-shaped Rounded or multi-layered
Location Attached to building eaves Underground or hidden in buildings

Both wasp and yellowjacket colonies consist of a queen, workers, and males, but wasps generally have smaller colony sizes. The queen is responsible for egg-laying, while the workers focus on collecting food, caring for larvae, and defending the colony.

Mating and New Queen Production

Mating occurs in the fall, where males and new queens are produced. The new queens will mate with males and then find a safe place to overwinter. In spring, the mated queens will begin new colonies.

Here are some species of wasps and yellowjackets:

  • Vespula alascensis: a species of yellowjacket commonly found in the northwestern United States
  • Vespula squamosa: the southern yellowjacket, native to the southeastern United States
  • Bald-faced hornets: a type of wasp belonging to the Vespidae family, known for their black and white coloration

Aside from some physical differences, their life cycles are quite similar. Some key features of the wasp and yellowjacket reproduction process include:

  • Mated queens overwintering
  • New colonies started yearly
  • Short colony life spans

Comparisons and Differences

Comparison with Other Wasp Species

  • Common wasps are typically slender, measuring around 3/4 inches in length, and have various colors such as yellow, brown, red, and black1. Their nests are open-faced combs, often attached to building eaves1.
  • Yellowjackets resemble bees in size and have black and yellow bands on their abdomens2. They usually build paper nests underground2. Their faces are yellow or white2.

Comparison Table

Feature Common Wasp Yellowjacket
Size Slender, 3/4 inches long Bee-sized
Colors Yellow, brown, red, and/or black1 Black and yellow bands2
Nest Type Open-faced combs1 Paper nests underground2
Face Color Yellow or white2

European Wasp

The European Wasp (Vespula germanica) is a common vespid wasp found in the northern hemisphere3. It scavenges for meat and sweets, often becoming a nuisance at picnics and campgrounds3.

Characteristics

  • Scavenging behavior3
  • Often found near food sources3

Vespid Wasps

Vespid Wasps, also known as Vespidae, include both common wasps and yellowjackets3. These wasps can be beneficial in controlling pests due to their predatory nature3. However, they can also become a hazard if their stings present a risk to humans3.

Pros

  • Predatory nature helps control pests3

Cons

  • Can become a hazard due to stinging risks3

Footnotes

  1. https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/paper-wasps-yellowjackets-and-other-stinging-wasps.html 2 3 4

  2. https://mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/field-guide/yellowjackets-vespula-wasps 2 3 4 5 6

  3. https://s3.wp.wsu.edu/uploads/sites/1384/2016/07/Yellowjackets-and-Paper-Wasps.pdf 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

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 in UK: Is this a Queen???

 

Large wasps in my kitchen in November!
Location: Leeds, UK
November 15, 2011 6:29 pm
Hi there, I’ve had 2 big wasps appear from nowhere in the past 2 days. They’re pretty dozy and can be caught easily. We also had about 4 in a row in 4 days in October. It wouldn’t be weird apart from the fact that it’s November and very cold now and they shouldn’t still be around. Could they be queens looking for a place to go? Our house has a lot of gaps in it so they could be crawling in from outside but it’s strange that there have been so many and the all seem to look bigger than the average wasp. Thanks.
Signature: Kate

Common Wasp

Hi Kate,
We believe we have correctly identified your wasp as
Vespula vulgaris, known as the Common Wasp in the UK, though in America the members of this genus are commonly called Yellowjackets.  We think your theory that they may be queens trying to find a place to hibernate is a strong possibility.  We are trying to find a reliable source for determining how to distinguish a queen from a worker, but our web searching has drawn a blank.  Perhaps one of our readers can supply that information.  There are some very fine photos and some good information on the Social Wasps website.

Common Wasp

Daniel:
I suspect that the “queens seeking winter shelter” theory is probably correct.  Workers do not persist past the first hard frost or two.
Eric

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 in UK: Is this a Queen???

 

Large wasps in my kitchen in November!
Location: Leeds, UK
November 15, 2011 6:29 pm
Hi there, I’ve had 2 big wasps appear from nowhere in the past 2 days. They’re pretty dozy and can be caught easily. We also had about 4 in a row in 4 days in October. It wouldn’t be weird apart from the fact that it’s November and very cold now and they shouldn’t still be around. Could they be queens looking for a place to go? Our house has a lot of gaps in it so they could be crawling in from outside but it’s strange that there have been so many and the all seem to look bigger than the average wasp. Thanks.
Signature: Kate

Common Wasp

Hi Kate,
We believe we have correctly identified your wasp as
Vespula vulgaris, known as the Common Wasp in the UK, though in America the members of this genus are commonly called Yellowjackets.  We think your theory that they may be queens trying to find a place to hibernate is a strong possibility.  We are trying to find a reliable source for determining how to distinguish a queen from a worker, but our web searching has drawn a blank.  Perhaps one of our readers can supply that information.  There are some very fine photos and some good information on the Social Wasps website.

Common Wasp

Daniel:
I suspect that the “queens seeking winter shelter” theory is probably correct.  Workers do not persist past the first hard frost or two.
Eric

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

Related Posts

2 Comments. Leave new

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

keyboard_arrow_up