Scary Jetfighter Wasps in Pennsylvania

Bugman,

This was last summer in Pennsylvania. They were crawling in little spaces over the windows. There were lots outside the spaces where they went in, and when the exterminator sprayed into them, a whole bunch of them came out like little jetfighters. What kind of wasp was this?

Chalres

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Hi Chalres,

I really wish I had one or two more pictures of this wasp so I could properly identify it. When I first saw this wasp, with its pale face front in center and thinly striped underside, I thought it was a bald-faced hornet.

But something wasn’t quite right with that face. Bald faced hornets have a black line that splits their face in two. So, I was back to looking at hundreds of pictures of Vespid wasps, looking for the right match. I knew the wasp belonged to the family Vespidae, given the thin folded wings, and the antennae with the curls at the end. But why couldn’t I find a face to match?

I knew that individual wasps have slightly different markings on the faces and research has come out to suggest that wasps of the same nest can recognize the faces of their sisters. So, I caulked it up as face variation and went with the bald-faced hornet again. But still, that face didn’t quite work for me.

So, I went back into the genus Polistes, also known as the paper wasps. As I was looking at wasp faces, I noticed that many of the markings on the faces were brown or a reddish color and sometimes I would see yellow markings like in the submitted photo. I then remembered that males and females can look very different within the same species. As I refined my search, I quickly learned that male Polistes have yellow face markings instead of the reddish-brown body markings like the females.

With that understanding in hand, I determined that this wasp has to be a male, either Polistes fuscatus or Polistes dominula. Respectively, these are the northern paper wasps and European paper wasps. Still, I wish I had a few more pictures of a higher quality to reassure myself that I was correct. If I had to take a guess based on the wasps making a nest in a sheltered place in the home, I would say it was the European paper wasp.

LIFE CYCLE

The paper wasps are a misunderstood genus of wasps, in my opinion. Most people think of wasps that get angry even if you look at them wrong and form swarms to chase you through the neighborhood. While that might be true for yellowjackets or hornets, paper wasps, on the other hand, are on the more relaxed side of things. Yes, they can sting if you try to attack their nest, but they tolerate a lot more activity than other wasps. 

A nest of paper wasps starts with a founding queen who has previously overwintered in a sheltered spot. She will begin by forming open cells out of a paper-like substance. She creates this paper material by chewing up wood fibers and combining it with her saliva. The nest starts to take shape and looks like an umbrella, suspended by a tiny stalk. She’ll lay one egg in each cell and then the queen will go out and hunt for insects to feed her growing larvae.

Once a few larvae have emerged as females, they will do more of the larval care as the nest grows bigger. In the fall, males are produced and new queens and males will fly away from the nest to mate. The males will then die and the females will overwinter and start their own nests in the spring.

BEHAVIOR

Paper wasps can be quite beneficial to have around your home, even though it seems like they have to pick their nesting spot right above your front door. Paper wasps like sugary things like nectar and honeydew, but they also have to feed their larvae protein. That means they are on the hunt for other insects. A lot of the times those insects are common garden pests. Paper wasps have been known to hunt caterpillars, flies, and other soft bodied insects.

MANAGEMENT

If you happen to see a nest of paper wasps forming in or on your home, it’s best to take action sooner than later. It’s much easier to deal with a small nest and a single queen, than to wait until the summer when she might have 5 or 6 workers to help her defend her domain.

You can either use a wasp spray that will knock out the female wasps or wait until dark where you can knock down the entire nest while the wasps are more inactive. You can even use a high-pressure hose to spray the nest down too. Just be careful of any living wasps, as they might see you as the threat to their disturbance!

If you’re allergic to bee stings, then chances are you are allergic to wasp stings too. This is important to remember, as wasps have a smooth stinger. Why does that matter? Well, bees can only sting you once, because their barbed stinger gets ripped out of their body and the bee dies. Wasps on the other hand, can sting you again and again without any problems. This extra venom being injected into your body could cause anaphylactic shock if you are allergic.

If you don’t feel comfortable with spraying wasps, or perhaps the nest is too big or too concealed to handle it on your own, then it might be best to call in a professional who can eliminate the nest without causing any issues.

Once the nest is knocked down and the wasps are killed, dispose of the nest. There might still be larvae growing inside the cells, or other wasps can emerge if you just leave it on the ground. It’s best to clean the area after 24 hours with soap and water to prevent any returning wasps from setting up their nest again.

Paper wasps are fun to watch as they work and feed their young. But probably it better from a distance!

Author

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