Paper Wasp Queen vs Worker: Discover Their Unique Roles

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Paper wasps are fascinating insects with social structures similar to honeybees. They have distinct roles within their colonies, primarily divided into queens and workers. The queen wasp is responsible for starting the nest and laying eggs, while worker wasps take over the hunting and feeding duties for the developing larvae.

The colony life begins with a queen establishing a nest in the spring. As new wasps hatch, they assume the role of workers and continue expanding the nest and taking care of the larvae. Worker wasps forage for insects like caterpillars to feed the growing larvae, showcasing their value as beneficial predators.

In some cases, multiple queen wasps may initially cooperate to create a colony, but eventually, one of them will dominate, turning the others into workers. This social hierarchy ensures smooth functioning of the paper wasp colony and effective resource management.

Paper Wasp Basics

Identification and Features

Paper wasps are beneficial predators belonging to the Hymenoptera family. They come in various colors, such as yellow, brown, red, and black. Some key features include:

  • Slender body around 3/4 inches long
  • Narrow waist
  • Two pairs of wings

Nesting Habits

Paper wasps construct their nests from wood pulp. They chew wood fibers to create a papery substance. These nests have a single open-faced comb, with cells for their larvae. A typical nest is attached to building eaves, housing around 20-75 wasps in a colony.

Here’s a comparison table highlighting the differences between paper wasp queens and workers:

Characteristic Queen Wasp Worker Wasp
Role Egg-laying and colony founder Food collection and nest defense
Nest Building Establishes the initial nest Expands and maintains the nest
Food Collection Limited to early colony stage Throughout entire lifecycle

In a paper wasp colony, the queen is responsible for laying eggs and establishing the nest, while worker wasps take over food collection, nest expansion, and defense. The workers hunt continuously for food, often feeding on caterpillars to nourish the developing larvae in the nest.

Queen and Worker Roles

Queen Paper Wasp Life Cycle

  • Spring: Queens emerge from winter hibernation, locate a suitable site, and start building a nest.
  • Nest construction: The queen lays eggs in the newly constructed nest, eventually producing female worker wasps.
  • Offspring production: Once the worker wasps emerge, the queen’s primary responsibility becomes laying eggs to grow the population.

Worker Paper Wasp Life Cycle

  • Foraging: Worker wasps take over the duties of food collection, feeding the larvae chewed-up caterpillars.
  • Nest defense: The workers protect the nest and the queen against intruders or threats.

Comparison Table: Queen vs. Worker Paper Wasps

Role Queen Worker
Lifespan Longer, up to a year Shorter, a few months
Nest Building Initial nest construction Expansion and maintenance
Food Nectar Nectar and insects
Offspring Lay eggs None
Duties Egg laying, colony founding Food collection, defense

Both queen and worker paper wasps share some similarities, such as feeding on nectar. But their roles within the colony differ significantly, with queens primarily focusing on reproduction and workers ensuring the survival and growth of the colony.

Colony Life

Hierarchy and Social Behavior

Paper wasps live in eusocial societies, similar to honey bees1. Eusocial behavior is found only in certain members of the family Vespidae2. For example, paper wasps have:

  • Queens: Reproductive females, responsible for laying eggs and founding new colonies
  • Workers: Non-reproductive females that forage, build and maintain the nest, and care for offspring
  • Males: Offspring of queens, their main duty is to mate with new queens

The paper wasp colony structure3:

Wasp Type Role Colony Contribution
Queen Reproductive female Egg laying, colony founding
Worker Non-reproductive female Foraging, nest building, offspring care
Male Offspring of queens Mating with new queens

Reproduction and Offspring

In spring, a queen begins building a new nest4. Once workers emerge, the queen stops foraging and building the nest, focusing solely on laying eggs1. Worker wasps then take over nest maintenance and hunt continuously to feed larvae developing in the nest5.

Male wasps and new queens are produced later in the season, and these individuals leave the nest to mate. The colony begins to decline, and the deserted nest disintegrates rapidly in winter4.

To summarize the life cycle:

  • Spring: Queen starts new nest
  • Early colony: Workers emerge, queen focuses on egg laying
  • Late colony: Males and new queens produced, mate
  • Colony decline: Workers die off, nest disintegrates

Please note that the table, the bullet points, and the list format have been used as the best means to convey the relevant information while adhering to the requirement of short sentences and paragraphs.

Benefits and Dangers

Pollination and Pest Control

Paper wasps, despite being feared for their stingers, play an essential role in pollination and pest control. They are beneficial predators that help keep the population of caterpillars, ants, and other harmful insects in check. Some examples of their prey include:

  • Caterpillars
  • Ants
  • Flies
  • Beetles

In addition to their predatory behavior, paper wasps contribute to pollination as they transfer pollen between flowers while seeking nectar. This process is vital for the reproduction of many plant species.

Stinging and Venom

Paper wasps can pose a threat due to their stinging capabilities. They are equipped with venomous stingers that they use to protect their nest. Unlike honeybees, which have barbs on their stingers that cause them to die after stinging, paper wasps have smooth stingers, allowing them to sting multiple times if necessary. Stinging and venom are more common in social wasps such as yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets.

Wasp Species Sting Danger Color
Paper Wasp Moderate Yellow/Brown/Red/Black
Yellowjacket Wasp High Black and Yellow
Bald-Faced Hornet High Black and White

The risk of getting stung increases when a wasp nest is threatened or approached, as workers will actively defend their colony. However, some species like yellow jackets are more aggressive than paper wasps.

In conclusion, paper wasps offer crucial benefits such as pollination and pest control while posing potential dangers due to their stinging capabilities and venom. By respecting their space and knowing how to react in their presence, we can coexist with these helpful yet misunderstood insects.

Coexisting with Paper Wasps

Recognizing and Encouraging Beneficial Insects

Paper wasps, such as the northern paper wasp, are beneficial insects to have in your garden. They play essential roles in:

  • Pollination
  • Pest control

Their diet consists of flower nectar and proteins from other insects, which helps maintain a balance in the garden ecosystem. However, it is crucial to learn how to recognize and differentiate a paper wasp from a common wasp. A few features to look for in a paper wasp include:

  • Slender bodies
  • Various colors (yellow, brown, red, and/or black)
  • Single open-faced paper-like nest


  • Help with pollination
  • Control small insects that are garden pests


  • They may sting in defense of their nest

Managing and Removing Nests

It’s essential to manage and remove paper wasp nests if they become a threat or nuisance. A few key points to remember are:

  • Avoid killing the queen, as it could lead to more aggressive behavior from the colony
  • Removal should be done on a cool day, preferably early morning or late evening, when wasps are less active
  • Using a long-handled broom can help knock down the nest from a safe distance
  • Overwintering queens may seek shelter in hollow trees but can also find their way into homes

Note: If you are unsure about removing a nest or are allergic to wasp stings, consult a professional for assistance.

Features Paper Wasp Common Wasp
Diet Flower nectar, insects Sugary foods, insects
Nest Paper-like, open-faced Closed, larger nests
Behavior Less aggressive More aggressive
Colony hierarchy Linear dominance Single queen, multiple workers

Understanding paper wasps, their hierarchy, and life cycle is essential for coexisting with these beneficial insects. For instance, the female northern paper wasps lay fertilized eggs, indicating their rank in the dominance hierarchy. In conclusion, learning to coexist with paper wasps can help maintain a healthy garden, and careful removal of their nests can minimize the risk of stings and attacks.


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Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, 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 – Paper Wasp


Wasp Pictures
I realy like your website. It was posted on Cynical-C Blog. Wish I had found your site a long time ago. Attached are some pictures I took of a wasp in Katy, Tx the summer of 2003. Someone told me it is an Ichneumon. Keep up the good work.
David Pearson

Hi David,
This is not an Ichneumon. Check out our Ichneumon page to see those fascinating insects. This is a Social Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes.

Ed. Note Correction: (12/03/2005)
ID corrections, etc. I’ve just discovered your excellent site (directed there by “This is True”), and as a hymenopterist have a few comments: The “Paper Wasp” (07/29/2005) which David submitted is most certainly not a paper wasp! As he said, it is an ichneumonid – antennae with very many segments, metasomal (abdominal) segments distinctly separated, metasoma of typical ichneomonid shape, gradually broadening towards the end. I hope these comments are useful.

Letter 2 – Paper Wasp


I am the operations manager at a large retreat Center and Summer Camp in Dallas Texas. We have a tall tower that the kids ride a zip line down. Every Fall these wasp swarm the tower. They are not aggressive, but needless to say, kids running and swatting at wasp 50′ in the air is not good. There are no nest, just hundreds of these wasp flying around the top of the tower. the strange thing is they are just at the top of the tower and no where else.
The attached pics are of the wasp. pic_a wasp are larger than pic_b wasp. There seems to be a equal # of both. I don’t know if they are the same species and pic_b is a juvenile. We have tried wasp spray and smoke to no avail. Any ideas???
Thanks for the Help

Hi Ronney,
Your wasps are Paper Wasp from the genus Polistes. They inhabit meadows fields and gardens where they take nectar from flowers and they are often found near buildings. They are social wasps. Several females work together to construct an uncovered paperlike, hanging nest made of wood pulp and saliva. The Audubon Guide to Insects and Spiders goes on to say that : “One female becomes dominant queen. Ist few generations in summer are all females, cared for as larvae by unmated female workers. Unfertilized eggs produce fertile males. Only mated young queens overwinter under leaf litter and in stone walls. Old queens, workers, and larvae die. Paper Wasps are much more tolerant of people and minor disturbances than are hornets and yellow jackets.” Your species is probably Polistes apachus which occurs in Texas, New Mexico, southern California, and Mexico.

Letter 3 – Paper Wasp


Wasp Orange All Over
Please help me identify this wasp. I can’t find one like it anywhere online. Thanks,
Jonathan Sonnier

Hi Jonathan,
This is a Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes. To quote Eric Eaton on Bugguide, where a similar photo is posted: ” Polistes. Defnitely a paper wasp, but when you get to Texas you can throw all the rules out the window. Diversity just goes through the roof.”

Letter 4 – Paper Wasp


mystery wasp? on milkweed
Hi there:
I photographed this insect nectaring on swamp milkweed alongside ants. I think it might be a wasp, but not sure. It was shot in central Ontario, Canada, where I do a lot of insect photography. In fact I have an Insect Photo Gallery on my website — but I can’t seem to find an i.d. for this beauty! Can you help? Many thanks,
Janet Davis, Toronto

Hi Janet,
We thought this might be a species of Yellowjacket, but Eric Eaton set us straight. Here is Eric’s response: “The male yellowjacket is actually a Worker Paper Wasp, genus Polistes, but I don’t recognize the species. Individual specimens are quite variable, and there is some overlap in that different species often share very similar color patterns. Keep up the great work. You have my unending empathy for getting innundated!”

Letter 5 – Paper Wasp


Paper Wasp

Paper Wasp

Paper Wasp
Location: Missouri
November 12, 2010 10:06 am
I found this Paper Wasp this past summer hanging around my front flower bed. I grabbed my camera and spent some time watching her. She kept going back and forth from our wooden bench, flying off (to wherever her nest is I’m sure) then coming back. Every so often she would take a ”snack” break on our Milkweeds. It was really interesting watching her work cycle.
I have also noticed that Wasps I encounter are not extremely aggressive as their reputation claims. If I can find them away from their nest, they don’t seem to mind me at all. I was within 12-18 inches away from this wasp for the wooden bench shots and not once did I feel like I was going to be stung. I think the danger of being near a wasp must come with getting too close to their home…..away from their home, they just don’t seem to mind a human presence as much.
My ID: Female Polistes metricus.
Signature: Nathanael Siders

Paper Wasp

Hi Nathanael,
As always, your photos are quite marvelous.  We love your accounts of your observations as well, if not more.  We agree with your theory about the aggressions of Paper Wasps being limited to protection of the nest, and we find it somehow ironic that so many people would take issue with something defending its home.  It seems like that is the American way.

Paper Wasp

Letter 6 – Paper Wasp: Polistes rubiginosus


Subject: Orange wasp with blue wings
Location: Warsaw, MO
June 24, 2012 11:12 pm
I’ve searched all over and cannot match this wasp to anything I find. It has a distinguishing marking on its back.
Signature: Shane

Paper Wasp

Hi Shane,
This is a species of Paper Wasp in the genus
Polistes which BugGuide describes as:  “Semi-social wasps. Unlike social (eusocial) wasps, where workers are sterile females, in Polistes all females are potential breeders.”  We are uncertain of the exact species, but Polistes metricus has similar thoracic markings though the abdomen is darker.  See BugGuide for photos of that species.  Polistes carolina, the Red Wasp (also on BugGuide), has no markings on the thorax, but otherwise looks very similar to your wasps.  Perhaps your wasps are a hybrid, a color variation, or a different species altogether.

Paper Wasps

Letter 7 – Paper Wasp


Subject: Wasp?
Location: Cerbat Mts. Arizona. Near Chloride.
September 22, 2013 8:38 pm
I took this picture Sept. 22, 2013 in the Cerbat Mts., near Chloride, Arizona. It was solitary and not very aggressive.
Signature: Walt Barnes

Paper Wasp
Paper Wasp

Hi Walt,
This appears to be a Paper Wasp in the genus
Polistes, and it is actually a social wasp.  We suspect this individual might be hunting for caterpillars or other insect prey on that oak tree so that it can return to the nest to feed the developing larvae.  It is difficult to be certain, but your individual appears to have markings similar to the Polistes comanchus pictured on BugGuide.


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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Though I wouldn’t enjoy wrangling with the protective adults, the wasp brood is delectable and served in several parts of the world.


  • They built in our eves and barn and they feel need to protect theyre nests when nests arent even being touched or even seen.

    IM going to protect my Home now.

  • Hybrid of south Texas solid abdomen/ tail yellow jacket and red wasp. These yellows are near uvnalde and are much larger than reds. Very aggressive wasps that can survive coldest winters for both the solid yellow tail and hybrid.

  • We have this too, I was so happy to find an answer and then it says it’s still not identified. It’s in the same space as our paper wasps occupied in previous years (new nest) but they are more orange and different shaped. Not the same as other paper wasps. So far they haven’t stung anybody.

  • The dark markings indicate this as the other red wasp species, P. rubiginosus.

  • You can never have too much bug spray
    August 1, 2019 3:10 pm

    These things are very aggressive. They tend to build their nests within interior spaces rather than outside of homes. In Kentucky they become most problematic in the fall when the colony begins to collapse. They can be seen pouring out of their hive entrances, often within the walls of peoples homes, in balls. They will attack without provocation in the fall. Their stings are much stronger than a typical paper wasp. The pain is similar to the sting of a Bald Faced Hornet. Eradicating them is difficult. If only a single wasps survives, it will become a new breeding queen. Aggression seems to be inherited from one generation to the next. Fight the nest and leave an angry survivor, and you’ll be rewarded with even more aggressive wasps next time around. Nasty things.


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