Paper wasps and yellow jackets both look alike In this blog, we look at the differences between a paper wasp vs yellow jacket.
Have you seen a wasp with a black body and bright yellow stripes? Are you wondering if that is a paper wasp or a yellow jacket wasp?
It is tough to differentiate between these two since they are so similar in physical appearance. But they are quite different in behavior and can be easily distinguished if you look closely.
This article will help you differentiate between the two species and help you understand them better, so you can deal with them safely and more intelligently.
What Are Paper Wasps?
Paper wasps have a striking appearance; they are about 0.63 inches long and can be identified by their orange antennae and wings.
North America is home to many paper wasps species, and at least 16 of them are found in the United States itself.
This type of wasp has brown or jet-black bodies with narrow yellow bands. The European paper wasps are slightly bigger than Australian paper wasps.
These wasps hunt by stinging insects to stunt and paralyze them.
They are also known for the unique construction of their nest. Paper wasp nests are built using fibers from dead wood and plant stems mixed with wasp saliva.
The end material looks similar to paper, which is why they were given the name paper wasps. They fall in the category of social wasps and usually live in small colonies with a single queen.
What Are Yellow Jackets?
The yellow jacket wasp is also a social insect. Unlike solitary wasps, they live in enormous colonies and have a distinctly identifiable queen and workers.
An average yellow jacket wasp is about ½ inch long. They can be identified by yellow and black bands on the body.
Because of their similar color, yellow jacket waps are mistaken for honey bees or paper wasps. But a yellow jacket wasp is slightly smaller than both.
Their nesting season begins in April or May when the queen locates a suitable nest site, usually found in hollow trees or some pre-existing cavity.
What Are The Similarities?
Many people cannot differentiate between a paper wasp and a yellow jacket wasp.
The main reason behind this is the body color; both these wasps have black bodies with vivid yellow patterns.
Their sizes are almost the same, and their wing colors are also very much like each other. Both these wasps are social and will be found in big wasp colonies.
Moreover, both are insectivores and can be found feeding on caterpillars and other small insects in the garden. Lastly, both tend to defend their nest aggressively if you approach them.
Paper Wasp Vs Yellow Jacket: Key Differences
While there’s a lot that sets these two wasps alike to each other, if you look more closely, it isn’t that hard to tell them apart either.
First of all, paper wasps are slightly larger and leaner. Moreover, the way they fly is also different from each other.
But perhaps the two most important differentiators are the type of nests they make and their behavioral aggression.
Let’s look at these differences in more detail.
Difference in size
The paper wasp is a little larger than a yellow jacket wasp. It can have an average length of 0.63 inches, and a yellow wasp grows up to 0.50 inches in length.
Also, if you look carefully, you can see that paper wasps have thinner, longer, and leaner bodies, while yellow jackets have smaller and fatter ones.
Other Physical Differences
Paper wasps have pointed translucent wings, while the yellow jackets have rounded, dark wings.
Moreover, as the name suggests, yellow jackets have primarily yellow bodies with small and regular black patterns. Paper wasps, on the other hand, are mostly black in color with orange-yellow designs.
Yellow jackets have yellow legs, and their antenna is completely black. Paper wasps have black legs and black antennae with a shade of orange color towards the top.
Another striking physical difference can be observed when these wasps fly; The paper wasps loosely swing their legs while flying, and the yellow jackets tend to fold their legs in when taking flight.
While both these species are omnivorous in nature, their eating habits are somewhat different.
Yellow jackets are more attracted to collecting sugary liquids, meat, or rotting materials. That is why they love to hover around picnic baskets, human food, and garbage rather than prey insects.
Paper wasps mostly hunt insects as a part of their regular diet. These wasps are also highly attracted to flower nectar, but they feed insects to their young ones almost exclusively.
Paper wasps are usually found in lush green gardens, with enough pests to hunt and a good range of flowers to sip nectar from.
Yellow jackets prefer to stay where humans are so that they can get their mouths on those jams, jellies, ice creams, and more!
Both of these wasps are known to defend their nests aggressively. However, the yellow jacket is considered to be more aggressive than the paper wasp.
These wasps have venomous stings that can hurt humans, but yellow jackets are more eager to use them.
Since yellow jacket wasps live on the ground, the chances of a person stomping them are high; therefore, they tend to sting as soon as they sense danger.
Paper wasps are comparatively less aggressive and will only sting in self-defense when someone is trying to manhandle them or disturb their nest.
The yellow jackets’ nests are almost always built in pre-existing holes under the ground. The paper wasps build nests under tiny tree branches or pre-existing wall voids.
A paper wasp nests resemble an upside-down umbrella, while a yellow jacket’s nest has different layers with one opening.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which sting is worse, Yellowjacket or paper wasp?
According to the Schmidt pain index, a paper wasp sting registers a 1.5-level pain, while a yellow jacket wasp sting registers 2-level pain.
Therefore, the yellow jacket sting is worse in pain than a paper wasps sting. Moreover, as we discussed earlier, yellow jackets are more eager to sting you than paper wasps.
Are paper wasps good to have around?
If you want to get rid of pests like caterpillars, flies, and other pests, paper wasps can be a great source. European paper wasps even eat aphids and soft-bodied pests.
These wasps are active hunters and hugely rely on these pests for their diet. Farmers across the world prefer to have wasps in their yards to keep the pests in check.
Why do paper wasp stings hurt so much?
When a paper wasp stings, they inject wasp venom, which triggers the sudden tightening of blood vessels within the dermis.
This leads to an increase in pain signals sent to our brains, causing redness, swelling, and itching (to reduce the pain)
Does killing a paper wasp attract more?
When you kill a paper wasp, they release pheromones which send a signal to the other nearby wasps via scent.
When these nearby wasps receive the signal, they swarm around the dead wasp’s body. Therefore instead of killing a wasp, you should trap it in a glass container as a barrier.
It is also good to first figure out the type of wasp and see if it is aggressive to humans or not.
Paper wasps and yellow jacket wasps are both considered aggressive compared to the other species of wasps. However, yellow jackets are more likely to sting you.
While both of them look similar, it is crucial to understand their differences to be able to protect yourself from them. We hope this article will help you identify them better.
Thank you for taking the time to read it!
Please go through some of the emails of our readers detailing these two wasps very closely.
They are very different from each other but very difficult to distinguish, so the real-life pictures and commentary will certainly help you identify the bug in your garden.
Letter 1 – Australian Paper Wasp
Australian paper wasp feeds young Dear Bugman, I continue to find your site of daily interest – what an amazing development in general interest in small creatures since the advent of the digital camera! Anyway, to the topic of this letter. Some paper wasps have built a nest on my front verandah (East coast Australia) and it has been fascinating to watch their behaviour over time. Whenever an adult flies in from foraging, she is “greeted” by one or more others, and there seems to be much twitching of front legs and/or feelers. In these photos you can see this, with a young one popping out of its hole anticipating a feed. Kind regards, Grev Hi again Grev, As always, thanks for sending us your wonderful photos.
Letter 2 – Banded Paper Wasp from Thailand with edible larvae
What is this wasp Hello, First, I apologize for the large file. I do not want to resize it as the wasps are small already. I could not (and did not want) to go closer. I could not find the exact match from whatsthatbug.com . I think they look like polistes paper wasp, but not very sure. Please help identify. The picture was taken in Bangkok, Thailand. The nest (or comb ?) is about 6 feet from the ground. Please also advise if they are dangerous. They look tame to me. Thanks Wit Hi Wit, According to a website we located, this is a Banded Paper Wasp, Polistes sagittarius. The author of the website writes: “This species, in my experience, is rather defensive. It will tolerate people moving calmly around the nest, but any attempt to get close is met with suspicion and defensive behaviour from the workers. The workers attack if the nest is touched, and unlike many other species which wildly sting whatever they can latch on to, this species often aims straight for the head! However, like most Polistines, its nests do not pose a threat in most cases, unless built near very crowded areas.” The species is found in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere in Asia. Update: (12/10/2007) Hi Daniel and Lisa Anne, Hope the end-of-the-semester finds you both well. These paper wasps in Thailand are guarding their grubs, as nearly all of the hymenoptera do. They’re eaten in various parts of the world; ant pupae are exported and are sold here in Providence, but not bee/wasp/hornet larvae or pupae. I haven’t tried any yet, but I’ll get my chance soon. I keep hearing they’re great, and you did get that really cool letter from Tla-i-ga recently about yellowjackets. Here’s an interesting picture [one of a series] of the same kind of thing in China: All the best, Dave
Letter 3 – Western Cicada Killer, not Paper Wasp
Hornet? January 10, 2010 Saw this on the Grand Canyon rafting trip in 2008, my friend may have submitted it before, but I’m unable to locate it Ava Arizona Hi Ava, This is a Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes, but the markings do not exactly match any of the species represented on BugGuide, though two species that are found in Arizona, Polistes apachus and Polistes arizonensis, has a similar coloration. According to BugGuide, the wasps in the genus Polistes are: “Large social wasps with long legs, usually brown, yellow markings typically less extensive than yellow jackets and hornets (Vespinae). Visit flowers. Build distinctive paper nests attached to a surface by a stalk. No outer covering of cells as in the Vespinae. Males have curly antennae and yellow faces, exception being P. annularis males, which have red faces just like females.” The angle of your photo isn’t exactly right to be certain, but it appears your specimen might have a yellow face indicating it is a male. We will try to get Eric Eaton’s opinion on this posting. Update: June 8, 2010 Thanks to a comment by Ron Hennessey, we now know that this is a heretofore unrepresented species on our site, a Western Cicada Killer, Sphecius grandis, which is well represented on BugGuide.
Letter 4 – What Beheaded the Paper Wasp?
Brown and yellow wasp/hornet? Location: Baton Rouge, Louisiana February 23, 2012 8:07 pm Dear Bugman, this creature has me befuddled. I tried looking up ”brown wasp” and found nothing similar – perhaps I gave up too soon? What puzzles me most is the apparent lack of eyes! It greeted me as I was coming home from work today (2/23/2012). It was 70 degrees and humid. Thanks much, and keep up the good work! Signature: N. Fritz Dear N. Fritz, Your Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes has no eyes because it has been decapitated and the entire head is missing. Though we are not certain of the species, your individual does look somewhat like the images of Polistes dorsalis that are posted on BugGuide. The more interesting mystery for us is “What beheaded this Paper Wasp?” We cannot think of a predator that would want to eat just the head, so we suspect this beheading might be related to a territory battle between colonies. Dear Daniel, How interesting! It had occurred to me that perhaps it was missing a head, so yesterday after I wrote you, I looked at this paper wasp again. Its abdomen was clearly and obviously moving up and down, so I thought it must still be alive. Can insects live without a head for some time? Dear N. Fritz, Cockroaches are reported be be able to live (if it can be called living) for several weeks without a head, though we know of no statistics on Paper Wasps. See Scientific American for information.
Letter 5 – Paper Wasp
Subject: Wasp Location: La Marque, Tx November 17, 2012 2:47 pm What kind of wasp is this? Signature: Thank You, Tx Finest Dear Tx Finest, This is a Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes. We believe it is Polistes bellicosus based on the photos posted to BugGuide and this description: “It has completely red hind femora.”
Letter 6 – Paper Wasp
Subject: slowly overcoming my wasp phobia Location: Missouri, United States April 16, 2015 10:19 pm I’m quite proud of myself, this wasp fell out of my hair and onto the ground yesterday and it didn’t look like she (he?) could fly. I watched her fumble around on some weeds for a bit and then I held my hand there and she crawled on. I was very scared, I’ve had countless bad experiences with wasps. but this went very well and I hope to have good experiences with them more often. I believe this wasp is in the polistes genus? a paper wasp of some sort? Signature: Stolz Dear Stolz, Congratulations on your new confidence. We agree that this is a Paper Wasp in the genus Polistes, and we thought that perhaps you were not stung because the individual was a male, so we researched how to tell the sexes apart. According to BugGuide: “Males have curly antennae and yellow faces, exception being P. annularis males, which have red faces just like females.” Your individual does not match images of P. annularis posted to BugGuide, so we are presuming your individual is a female. Your individual resembles the allegedly aggressive Red Wasp, Polistes carolina, that is the subject of many comments on our site, but BugGuide does not list the Red Wasp occurring in Missouri. Perhaps your individual is the very similar looking Polistes rubiginosus, that according to BugGuide, is reported from Missouri.