Did you know that the paper wasp nest is a marvel of engineering, design, and innovation? Let’s learn all about how paper wasps make their nests and why these nests are so special.
Around 700 species of paper wasps exist throughout the world, twenty-two of which are found in North America alone.
A common summer sight, the paper wasp belongs to the order Hymenoptera, family Vespidae, sub-family Polistinae, and genus Polistes.
Polistes are one of the most common types of paper wasps found in America. They are named after their ability to create nests with a substance that is essentially paper which they create by mixing wood fiber with their own saliva.
Spot a few of them hovering nearby? You might be neighbors to a paper wasp colony.
Architectural icons and the skilled engineers of the animal kingdom, let’s find out how paper wasps build intricate nests with the help of nothing but their saliva and smarts!
What Do Paper Wasp Nests Look Like?
There are various types of wasps that exhibit the same behavior of making paper nests, including Yellow jackets, paper wasps, and bald-faced hornets.
What sets each of them apart is the size, shape, and location of the nests. A surefire way to identify paper wasp nests is by observing their structure.
You may have noticed an umbrella-shaped nest affixed to the ceiling of your outdoor porch.
At other times you may have caught sight of one dangling on tree limbs, chimneys, porch ceilings, and support beams.
These nests are commonly found in attics, garages, barns, or other secluded areas.
The hexagonal-formed chambers of the paper wasp nests are the most efficient use of space when packing multiple chambers in a single nest.
It turns out that hexagons use the least amount of space and can hold the maximum amount of weight!
Not only have architects marveled at their engineering ingenuity, but they have also used designs similar to that of wasps nests to create buildings.
How Do They Make Their Nests?
The female wasp scrapes off wood fiber from fences, logs, and cardboard with the help of her mandibles.
She then uses both saliva and water to weaken these fibers. With a mouthful of pulp and her mind set on the construction of her nest, she starts the wet cellulose on a suitable surface.
The pulp dries up to form a strong buttress that becomes the foundation for the entire nest.
It is interesting to note that the wasp saliva has chemicals that make the nest waterproof. In places where the weather is rainier, the female wasp adds extra saliva while making her nest.
She lays her progeny in hexagonal-shaped cells in the nest. Every cell contains a single egg laid by the queen. Each egg then hatches into a larva.
Where Do They Hang Their Nests?
The paper wasp nest is distinctly umbrella-shaped, quite different from other wasps.
One can find their nests suspended from the ceiling of their outdoor porches, chimneys, slender yet sturdy tree branches, and support beams present in attics, barns, garages, and other covered areas.
These wasps almost always find a protected area to hang their nests.
Why Their Nests Are Fluorescent
These beneficial insects are known for hexagonal-shaped off-white paper nests, but did you know that these same nests emit an eerie glow at night?
The finely woven silky paper wasp strands contain fluorescent proteins visible only at night or under black light.
The purpose of this fluorescence is still unclear, but scientific speculation tells us that the alien-green hues might be helpful in guiding the wasps home.
Another possibility is that the fluorescence helps them to differentiate between nests.
One more speculation is that the fluorescence protects the nest from overexposure to the harmful rays of the sun.
How Humans Learnt How To Make Paper From Them
French scientist René-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur’s wanderings in nature gave way to the scientific observation of wasp-made paper nests and, as a result, paper.
René Réaumur’s observation came at a time when there was a dire need for a replacement paper fiber.
This idea of paper-making took root in a German clergyman – Jacob Schaffer, who wrote a detailed treatise on using alternate fibers for this purpose.
Finally, in the 1850s, paper-making gained momentum as rag slurries were disposed of. How was it that a wasp with the brain size of two sand grains mastered the art of creating durable paper while humans slaved away thousands of years to duplicate the same?
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take a paper wasp to build a nest?
It takes around 4-6 months to complete a nest. The nest stays under construction throughout spring and summer.
The sturdy and hexagonal-built paper wasp nests are made during early springtime. Over the course of winter, these nests wither away. The queen chooses a nesting site and constructs yet another nest the next spring.
How does a paper wasp nest start
Using her mandible, the queen wasp scrapes off wood fibers and uses both saliva and water to deposit the pulpy substance on a strong surface.
The pulp dries off and soon becomes sturdy. This then acts as a foundation for the nest.
As she lays eggs, more and more wasps emerge and become workers who keep on building the nest until the colony has as many as 200 wasps in it.
Should I knock down a paper wasp nest?
No, you should not try knocking down a paper wasp nest or paper wasp colonies, especially during the daytime when they are very active.
Instead of fiddling with an active wasp nest, you can try removing it during the winter or during the nighttime.
What is the lifespan of a paper wasp?
The lifecycle of a specific paper wasp species varies. But generally, worker wasps or adult paper wasps will live for 12-22 days, while the queen wasp will be able to live for a year.
In late summer, female offspring of the queen mate and look for over-wintering sites. The rest of the colony fails to survive winter.
Paper wasps live in colonies that they keep defending throughout their lifetime.
These social wasps are the masterful creators of umbrella-shaped paper nests and are the geniuses behind the efficient use of space.
Take a page out of their book and revel in the beauty of a functional hierarchy, diligence, hard work, and well-deserved creativity! Leave the snacking on insect pests, though!
Thank you for reading!
Paper wasp and yellow jacket nests are something that often gets confused by our readers. Read through some of the photographs and stories shared by them in the past.
Letter 1 – Paper Wasp
what type of wasp/hornet?
I have looked through your (site as well as a few of your linked sites and haven’t found a match for the (hornet?) in the attached photo. I found this guy hanging out in one of my papaya trees today and he seemed very interested in staying there despite my sticking a camera in his face. He would get agitated with me and buzz by my head only to go back to the same spot in the tree. He was alone and I saw no evidence of any kind of nest. I am in central Florida. Any help in identifying him would be appreciated. I also think you have a great site here and I plan on bookmarking it for future reference.
After consulting with Eric Eaton, we are 99% sure this beautiful wasp is in the genus Polistes, but we do not recognize the species. We will continue to try to get a more definite identification.
Ed. Note: This just came in: (09/25/2005) “recently posted wasp
I am almost 90% sure that this particular was is a Golden Paper Wasp Polistes fuscatus Let me know what you find out. thx,
Update: January 19, 2018
A recent comment informed us that this is Polistes major major, which is represented on BugGuide.
Letter 2 – Two species of Polistes Paper Wasps
I would like to say that when I first “stumbled” on your site I was a little repulsed but the next thing I knew, I found myself spending hours looking at the different bugs and reading your mail. To my amazement, I found that some of those bugs are beautiful. Your site is now in my “favorites”. We have two types of wasps in our back yard. After getting over my fear and impulse to get rid of them, I realized that they are not aggressive and seem to be eating something off our hostas and peonies although I can’t see what. There are at least 20 wasps at all times. My question is this: Do they sting? Can they become aggressive?
Thanking you in advance,
|Polistes Paper Wasp||European Paper Wasp|
Both of your wasps are Paper Wasps in the genus Polistes. The brown one is a native species. For more information on the yellow and black one, we turned to Eric Eaton. He wrote this: “There is no such thing as a “solitary” paper wasp:-) They are social, just have pretty small colonies. This one is the European paper wasp, Polistes dominulus, introduced to the U.S. back in the 1990s and now one of the most common urban wasps. It may even be displacing some native Polistes in certain areas. Eric”
Letter 3 – Polistes Paper Wasp
Bee or wasp?
What type of bee or wasp is this. It was found in south Florida. Thanxs,
This is a Polistes Paper Wasp, one of the social wasps. Eric Eaton gave us the species: ” The Florida Polistes, 3/18, is P. exclamans.”
Letter 4 – Polistes Paper Wasp
good day to you.
a few days ago we noticed this yellow wasp visiting the small flowers on our Mexican Fencepost cactus. any idea as to what it is? jimb
This is a Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes.
Letter 5 – Polistes Paper Wasp
My sister found your website today when I showed her a picture of a bug we determind to be some form of assain bug. But what I want to show you is a picture of what I belive to be some form of paper wasp. My mom is a park ranger, so i’m always running into curiosities. The picture was taken in North Miami Beach, Florida in Oleta River State Park. (It’s a pretty good picture, I must say).
This is certainly one of the Polistes Paper Wasps, probably Polistes exclamans. We will post your image and see if we can get clarification..
Letter 6 – Polistes Paper Wasp
yellowjacket or paper wasp?
I took this picture today and now we are having friendly fire over if it is a Yellowjacket(?) or a Paper Wasp(?) I hope the picture isn’t tooooo big. Thank You,
And the winner is …. Polistes Paper Wasp.
Letter 7 – Polistes major: Paper Wasp
posted 01/26/2007 Golden Paper Wasp or Giant Hornet?
On Sanibel Island, Florida – this fairly co-operative individual let me snap a couple photos before flying off. I have to admit – it looked rather intimidating, but didn’t seem aggressive as I lurked around the thistle taking his picture. Your website has helped me get over my squeamishness about many insects. The information you provide helps propel me beyond reflexive revulsion. It really is a fascinating world flitting, burrowing and crawling around us. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm. It’s contagious.
(vacationing in Florida)
We are sorry for the delay, but we had a slow mail day today and are answering a few older letters. This looks like Polistes major, a Paper Wasp with no common name. BugGuide lists some specimens from Florida.
Letter 8 – Polistes Paper Wasp
What is this Black Wasp with Yellow Abdomen and Legs
I spotted this beauty late September while he was feeding on a lechagialla bloom in Bib Bend National Park. I checked your site and a few others (yours is the best, hands down) but couldn’t find a certain match.
This is a Polistes Paper Wasp. We cannot be conclusive about the species but will check with Eric Eaton. Here is Eric’s suspicion: ” I believe this is Polistes comanchus, but not absolutely positive. Very similar, anyway. Please see if Bugguide has an image you can compare to. Eric”
Hi, I’m just learning how to use bugguide, and I thought I’d see if I can contribute to the ID of the Polistes paper wasp from 12/05/06. That could definitely bee a Polistes comanchus, but I think maybe it’s a Polistes aurifer. Thanks so much for such a great site.
Letter 9 – Paper Wasps, probably Golden Polistes
Paper Wasp Nest – Now What?
Fri, Nov 28, 2008 at 12:55 PM
For almost two months now, I’ve been watching and photographing a paper wap nest in my back yard here in Hawthorne, California. It fell Thanksgiving Day from it’s location under a shelf in what we call “The Sanctuary”. Image 1 is of one of the wasps still on the nest at that time. I’m sure it’s in the genus Polistes, but it doesn’t look exactly like the photos of Polistes Dominulus I find posted on your site. Image 2 is what is left of the nest this morning, the day after Thansgiving. What is perplexing me is pictured in the third image I’ve attached. There are a bunch of these wasps congregating at the exact spot where the nest was originally. What are they doing?
We believe your Paper Wasps are Polistes aurifer, named the Golden Polistes by Charles Hogue who at the time his book, Insects of the Los Angeles Basin was reprinted in 1993, still considered this to be a subspecies of Polistes fuscatus. BugGuide does consider it to be a separate Western species. You didn’t indicate what caused the nest to fall. We suspect it was the recent deluge and winds in Southern California just before Thanksgiving.
According to Hogue: “The umbrella-shaped nests, which are made of a peper-like substance similar to that produced by the Yellow Jacket, are composed of a single layer of cells and attached by a short stem to the underside of overhanging surfaces (eaves or fence rails, for example). Adult wasps gather caterpillars, which they skin and chew before feeding them to the grub-like larvae developing in the cells.” The reason the wasps have congregated around the nest site is that for the past few months, they have been in the habit if returning to the nest. Much like people who have “lost everything” in a fire or other disaster, if the site is still attractive, your wasps may choose to rebuild in the same location.
Letter 10 – Texas Paper Wasp
Subject: Type of wasp
Geographic location of the bug: Austin Texas
Time: 06:47 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: Seen this bug, just curious
How you want your letter signed: Kitsada M Kongmanichanh
We were away from the office for several weeks when you submitted your request, and we are just now trying to catch up on some old ID requests. This is some species of Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes. Paper Wasps are social wasps that build a nest from chewed wood pulp, and they will defend the nest against perceived threats. We believe your individual might be a Texas Paper Wasp, Polistes apachus, based on this BugGuide image.
Letter 11 – Vespid Wasp from Spain is Vespa bicolor
Subject: Bee or wasp?
Geographic location of the bug: Andalusia, Spain
Time: 12:35 PM EDT
Your letter to the bugman: Dear Bugman,
Are these bees or wasps? where feeding on bottle brush. They where not small, much bigger than paper wasp, but they looked much more wasp like than a bee.
Malaga province, Spain, October 22, 2018
Thanks in advance
How you want your letter signed: Perry
This is definitely a Wasp and not a Bee. It looks to us like one of the Paper Wasps in the genus Polistes, but we have not found any images from Spain on the internet that resemble your individual. Perhaps one of our readers will be able to substantiate or provide a correction.
Correction: December 29, 2018
Thanks to comments from several of our readers, though the species is still not identified, we now know that this is one of the Hornets or Yellowjackets in the subfamily Vespinae.
Update Regarding Permission to use images: February 28, 2019
Dear Mr Marlos,
You are most welcome Leopoldo. The submitted letter indicates the images were taken in “Malaga province, Spain, October 22, 2018.”
Dear Mr Marlos
My little investigation has born fruit, and here’s the “happy ending”.
On Friday I spent some time surfing the ‘net, with unexpectedly good results: first I found out what the photographer’s full name was, then I got hold of his email and finally I was able to contact him. He has kindly provided the exact locality (Mijas), as well as some other relevant details. This part of the puzzle is now complete, and I can move on to the next phase, thanks to your help and his.
Congratulations on your diligence Leopoldo. I began What’s That Bug? in 1998 as a column in a zine called American Homebody that eventually became a website when the zine editor, and a collaborative artist on other projects I did, decided she wanted to learn web design, so What’s That Bug? became an online column on a website. When Lisa Anne suggested I purchase the domain name in 2002 because my column generated more mail than the rest of the website combined. I have been answering inquiries for 17 years, and I no entomological credentials, nor any science background. I am an artist, so it gives me great satisfaction each time I am contacted because of the important sightings documented in our extensive database. I’m so happy I was able to facilitate your research.
Dear Mr Marlos,
After a very short editorial process, I’ve had the paper on Vespa bicolor published by an entomological journal, and you can find it attached. As you’ll see, your valuable help is duly acknowledged at the end of the article (sorry that it’s in Spanish… the paper’s mostly aimed at Spain’s scientific community) (but’s it’s got a lot of international hits in the seven days it’s been available on the ‘net).
2019 Castro =V. bicolor[CAS19A]
Hi again Leopoldo,
Congratulations on your quick completion of your paper.