As the temperature increases, you may notice an increase in flying insects, especially different types of wasps. While some of them are harmless, others can bite or sting. One (some may say aggressive) insect notorious for stinging is the wasp.
While these flying insects incite fear and even panic, many are harmless; people still see all types of wasps as pests, regardless of how dangerous they may be to humans.
As an experienced gardener and a firm advocate of sustainable and organic gardening practices, I firmly believe that understanding and coexisting with these often misunderstood insects is essential for maintaining a thriving garden ecosystem.
By recognizing different wasp species and their roles in pest control, we can promote a harmonious balance without resorting to harmful chemicals.
In this article, I’ll share how to identify various types of wasps that you may encounter in your garden. Armed with this knowledge, you will not only become more adept at recognizing these incredible creatures but also gain insights into their ecological significance.
Remember, our goal is not to eradicate wasps entirely but to appreciate their contributions as natural pest controllers while ensuring a safe and nurturing environment for both plants and humans.
What’s a Wasp?
The term wasp is for any insect member of the order Hymenoptera, suborder Apocrita, most of which are stinging. Wasps can be distinguished from the bees and ants of Apocrita by several physical and behavioral characteristics, particularly cause they have smooth and slender bodies and legs with relatively few hairs.
Also, wasps can be predatory or parasitic and possess stingers with few barbs that can be easily removed from their victims. Similar to Aprocrita relatives, wasps have a narrow petiole (waits) that attaches the thorax and the abdomen.
These flying insects have an antenna with twelve to thirteen segments and biting mouthparts, and they’re usually winged. Only females have a formidable sting in stinging species, which involves using a modified ovipositor (egg-laying structure) for venom-producing and piercing glands.
Mature wasps mainly feed on nectar and sometimes on larvae secretions. Larvae of predatory wasp species feed typically on insects, while parasitic species’ larvae feed on their hosts. Wasps have two subdivisions: solitary wasps and social wasps.
But what’s the difference between them? The main difference is that solitary wasps live alone, and social wasps live in colonies.
Social Wasps vs. Solitary Wasps
Although social wasps live in colonies, it doesn’t mean they have large colonies. A typical wasp nest can have somewhere around 10-12 members.
Bigger wasp nests can contain up to 10,000 members, and although it may sound like a considerable number, it is way below the 50,000 workers a bee colony can have.
Social wasps are part of the Vespidae family, which features yellow jackets and hornets, one of the most aggressive types of wasps.
The majority of wasp types belong to the solitary class, and they are primarily predators. Solitary wasps are often parasitic and do not build colonies, unlike social wasps. There are four groups which are the prominent solitary wasps:
- Velvet wasps belong to the Mutillidae family
- Scoolid wasps of the Scoliidae family
- Tiphiid Wasps of the Tiphiidae family
- Cuckoo wasps of the Chrysididae family
How to Identify a Wasp
With so many different species buzzing around, it is almost impossible to tell wasps apart by size. Some of them are less than half an inch, while others can grow up to 1.6 inches (Asian giant hornets), with the queen even being more oversized.
However, some physical characteristics and behavior patterns will allow you to tell wasps from bees.
Generally speaking, wasps are less hairy than bees because they are not primarily pollinators like bees. When bees fly from one flower to another, they use their body hair to collect pollen which is later stored on little brackets attached to their legs. For the most part, wasps do not care about pollen; hence they don’t need these little hairs.
Unlike bees, most wasps have a slim waistline. This is because the wasp’s abdomen narrows down where it meets the thorax at the upper part. However, there is one exception to the rule. Hornets do not have thin waists, so they can be mistaken for bees.
Wasps construct paper-like nests, usually made of chewed wood fibers mixed with saliva. These nests can be found in various locations, such as under eaves, in tree branches, or in ground cavities.
However, please exercise caution and maintain a safe distance when observing nests, as wasps can become defensive if they feel threatened.
Wasps are carnivorous and feed on other insects, spiders, and sometimes nectar. Unlike bees, wasps do not play a significant role in pollination, but they can be beneficial by controlling pest populations in your garden.
Wasps are known for their active flight patterns and quick movements. They have a distinctive way of flying, darting back and forth in a more direct manner compared to bees. They may also exhibit territorial behavior around their nests.
Most Common Types of Wasps
Let’s take a look at the main wasp types you may want to know about. If you’re having a wasp problem in your home’s garden, there’s a high chance they will fall into one of the following breeds.
1. Yellow Jackets
Yellow Jackets are social wasps that can be commonly found in gardens and other outdoor areas. They are known for their aggressive nature, especially when their nests are disturbed. They’re attracted to sweet foods and can become a nuisance around picnics or outdoor gatherings.
This type of wasp is among the most aggressive and common wasp specie in the US. Of the 16 kinds of yellowjackets that live in the US, most have black and gold patterns, though there are a few with white instead of yellow, and some may have red markings on their bodies.
Most yellow jacket wasps are the same size as regular bees but are not as hairy. Their length varies between ⅜ inches and ⅝ inches.
To identify Yellow Jackets, look for their characteristic yellow and black striped abdomen. They are about half an inch to three-quarters of an inch long. Yellow Jackets build nests in the ground, in hollow trees, or occasionally in man-made structures like wall voids or attics.
If you spot Yellow Jackets in your garden, it’s important to exercise caution and avoid provoking them.
2. Cow Killer Wasp
This solitary parasitic wasp, also known as the Eastern Velvet ant, lays its eggs in bumble bee colonies. The females are wingless and covered in dense, velvety hair, while the males are winged and resemble typical wasps. Cow Killer Wasps are known for their potent sting, which is why they have gained the name “cow killer.”
To identify Cow Killer Wasps, look for the wingless females covered in dense, velvety hair. They are usually brightly colored, with patterns of red, orange, or yellow contrasting with black. The males resemble typical wasps with wings.
Cow Killer Wasps are not typically found in gardens unless there is a specific habitat suitable for their presence. Their sting can be quite painful, so it’s best to avoid handling or provoking them if encountered.
3. Thread Waisted Wasp
Thread Waisted Wasps, also known as sand wasps, are solitary wasps that can be found in gardens and other outdoor spaces. They get their name due to their incredibly thin waists and are black with orange or bulging red abdomens.
Thread Waisted wasps have long skinny legs that they grab onto plants. These wasps attack by ambushing their prey (small insects), paralyzing them with venom, and later laying eggs in their bodies.
To identify Thread Waisted Wasps, look for their slender bodies with distinct thin waists and long petioles. They build nests in sandy soil or loose dirt and often capture spiders or other insects as food for their offspring.
Thread Waisted Wasps are generally considered beneficial in the garden as they help control pest populations. Encourage their presence by providing sandy areas for nesting, and they will contribute to natural pest management.
4. Great Black Wasp
Great Black Wasps, also known as katydid hunters, are solitary wasps found in gardens and natural areas. They are large wasps with robust body and are entirely black in color.
The Great Black wasps mostly live in burrows and are part of the extensive Digger wasp family. These wasps are more prominent than other types and can be recognized by their shiny black bodies.
To identify Great Black Wasps, look for their large size and entirely black coloration. They have a robust body with long legs and wings.
Great Black wasps are great pests removers, they rarely attack humans, and unlike other wasps, they do some pollinating work while feeding.
5. European Hornet
The European Hornet wasps arrived in the US in the late 80s and are now widespread over Eastern states. These wasps live in papery nests in hollow trees or under eaves. You can find up to 400 wasps in a European Hornet colony.
These wasps are big intimidating insects with blackheads and occasional red markings, with the typical black and yellow stripes in their abdomen. While the European Hornet wasps might look scary, they are defensive species and won’t attack unless threatened.
To identify European Hornets, look for their robust size, ranging from three-quarters of an inch to over an inch in length. They have brown or reddish-brown bodies with yellowish stripes on their abdomen.
6. Blue-Winged Wasp
Blue-winged Wasps are solitary wasps that can be found in gardens. As its name states, these wasps have blue wings, but these blue wings are hardly noticeable. However, you can identify these wasps by their orange abdomen, lower part, and a bright yellow spot near their waist.
To identify Blue-winged Wasps, look for their distinct metallic blue wings and black or bluish-black bodies. They build nests out of mud and provision them with paralyzed spiders for their young.
Blue-winged Wasps are beneficial in the garden as they help control spider and Japanese beetle populations. If you spot their nests, it’s best to leave them undisturbed as they contribute to natural pest control.
7. Four-toothed Mason Wasp
Four-toothed Mason Wasps are solitary wasps that can be found in gardens and other outdoor areas. These wasps take their name from protruding mouth parts that look like teeth. They are medium-sized wasps with robust body and distinctive four-toothed mandibles.
Four-toothed Mason wasps are very similar to Bald-face wasps. These wasps have black hairless bodies and are very small compared to others. You can easily recognize a Four-Toothed Mason wasp by its white markings on the back.
Four-toothed Mason Wasps are beneficial in the garden as they help control pest populations. Their nest-building behavior contributes to natural pest management. Encourage their presence by providing suitable nesting sites and maintaining diverse plantings.
8. Southern Yellow Jackets
Southern Yellow Jackets are a species of yellow jacket wasps commonly found in gardens, particularly in the southern regions.
They are similar in appearance to other yellow jackets, with black and yellow striped abdomens. These wasps are very aggressive to both humans and other yellow jacket species.
Once a Southern Yellow Jacket has a home, it will defend it furiously. These wasps have a spade-like stinger which they use to attack multiple times before dying.
To identify Southern Yellow Jackets, look for their yellow and black striped abdomens. They are similar in size to other yellow jackets, about half an inch to three-quarters of an inch long. Southern Yellow Jackets build nests in various locations, including underground, in wall voids, or in other enclosed spaces.
When encountering Southern Yellow Jackets in the garden, it’s important to be careful and avoid provoking them.
9. Northern Paper Wasps
Northern Paper Wasps are another type of social wasp that can be found in gardens and are common in Midwestern states.
These wasps take their name from the material their nests are created of, usually regurgitated wood pulp mixed with saliva. You can find these nests hanging from trees.
Northern Paper wasps are brownish with yellow-reddish markings. They have distinctive long legs, so you can easily tell them apart from yellow jackets or bees.
These wasps are beneficial in the garden as they feed on insects, including caterpillars, flies, and beetle larvae.
Since Northern Paper Wasps provide natural pest control by preying on other insects, it’s generally best to coexist with them in the garden. If their nest is located in an inconvenient area, consider using physical barriers to discourage them from nesting in unwanted locations.
10. Potter Wasps
Potter Wasps are solitary wasps known for their unique nest-building behavior. They construct nests out of mud or clay, giving them the appearance of small pottery jars.
These solitary wasps’ main hobby is killing caterpillars, so when you think about it, their presence might be beneficial for your garden. Potter wasps are primarily black and have a yellow band over their thorax and another on their abdomen.
Once these wasps find a new home, they hunt down a caterpillar, paralyze it, and take it to their nest for the larvae to feed off.
To identify potter wasps, look for their characteristic nest structures made of mud or clay. The nests resemble small pots or jars, often attached to walls, rocks, or other surfaces. The wasps themselves can vary in color and size depending on the species.
Potter wasps are generally not aggressive and do not pose a threat to humans or plants. Their presence in the garden can be beneficial as they contribute to pollination and prey on small insects.
11. Spider Wasp
Spider Wasps are solitary wasps that can be found in gardens, particularly in areas where spiders are abundant. They are medium-sized wasps with a slender body and long legs.
This wasp’s name is a dead giveaway. Spider wasps attack spiders and paralyze them with their venom. These wasps have distinctive coloring, reddish/bright orange legs, and black bodies.
Spider wasps tend to make their home in mud nests abandoned by the Mud Dauber wasps. Spider wasps carry a spider to their nest, then lay eggs near their dead bodies to provide food for larvae once they hatch.
Spider Wasps are beneficial in the garden as they help control spider populations.
12. Bald-faced Hornet
Bald-faced Hornets, also known as white-faced hornets, are another type of social wasp commonly found in gardens. Despite their name, they are not true hornets but rather a species of yellowjacket.
These wasps have stout bodies, and they’re usually black and white. They build large, aerial nests made of papery material, usually in trees, shrubs, or on the sides of buildings.
Bald-faced Hornet waps are incredibly aggressive and will repeatedly sting if they feel like their nest is threatened. You can find these wasps under trees or bushes or hanging under buildings’ eaves.
If you find a nest in an unwanted location, consult with a professional for safe removal.
13. German Yellow Jacket
German Yellow Jacket wasps look very much like yellow jackets with the same black and yellow pattern, but their abdomen’s spade-shaped marks can distinguish these wasps. They’re known for their aggressive behavior, especially when their nests are threatened.
To identify German Yellow Jackets, look for their yellow and black striped abdomens. They are similar in size to other yellow jackets, about half an inch to three-quarters of an inch long.
German Yellow Jackets build nests in various locations, including underground, in wall voids, or in other enclosed spaces. Be careful if you come across their nest to avoid provoking them.
14. Cuckoo Wasps
Cuckoo Wasps, also known as jewel wasps, are a diverse group of small wasps found in gardens. They are known for their striking and often metallic coloration. Cuckoo Wasps are parasitic, laying their eggs in the nests of other wasps or bees.
Cuckoo wasps are not aggressive and have a relatively small stinger. Unlike other wasps, when these wasps feel cornered, they will curl up and hope for the best.
Their presence in the garden can add aesthetic value due to their beautiful colors. Providing a diverse range of flowering plants will help attract and support these fascinating insects.
15. Mud Dauber
Mud Daubers are solitary wasps that are known for their unique nest-building behavior. They construct nests out of mud, which gives them their name. They have slender bodies, usually with yellowish wings and yellow marks.
Mud Dauber wasps usually dig 1-inch tunnels side by side and deposit one egg in each. These wasps’ nests can be found under porch ceilings and eaves and in barns, sheds, or garages.
To identify Mud Daubers, look for their slim body shape and long, thread-like antennae. They build nests that resemble elongated tubes made of mud, often attached to walls, under eaves, or in protected areas.
Mud Daubers are generally considered beneficial as they feed on spiders and other insects. If you spot their nests in your garden, it’s best to leave them undisturbed unless they are in an undesirable location.
In that case, carefully remove the nest and relocate it to a more suitable area.
16. European Paper Wasp
European Paper Wasps are social wasps that can be found in gardens and urban areas. They are medium-sized wasps with black bodies and yellow markings, which makes them easy to confuse with yellow jackets. European Paper Wasps are known for their distinctive nests, which are made of a paper-like material.
These wasps are great for pest control as worker wasps feed cabbage worms, hornworms, and caterpillars to the larvae. If their nest is located in an undesirable location, consider using physical barriers to prevent their nesting.
17. Braconid Wasps
Braconid Wasps are a diverse group of parasitic wasps that can be easily mistaken for flies because they are very small. They have black heads and red bodies.
These wasps have a long needle that looks like a stinger, but it’s not. Through this needle, Braconid wasps manage to deposit eggs deep inside tree holes to protect them from predators.
Braconid Wasps are valuable natural enemies of garden pests. They do not pose a threat to humans or plants. I recommend encouraging biodiversity and providing a suitable habitat with diverse plant species will help attract and support these beneficial insects in the garden.
18. Cicada Killer Wasp
Cicada Killer Wasps are large solitary wasps that can be found in gardens where cicadas are present. They are one of the largest wasp species, with a robust body and powerful sting.
As the name suggests, they prey on cicadas and are not a threat to humans. These wasps have black bodies with yellow markings and can be seen working together to build a nest, which can be mistaken for a small animal’s burrow. Female cicada killer wasps dig burrows in the ground, while males are more commonly seen flying around.
These wasps hunt and attack cicadas in midair, paralyzing them with their strong sting, and take their bodies to their nests for their larvae to feed on. Mature Cicada Killer are attracted to flower nectar, so you can find them in gardens.
Cicada Killer Wasps are generally not aggressive toward humans but may cause concern due to their size and sting.
If their presence becomes a problem, consider seeking professional assistance for safe and effective management.
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Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa's work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.