This is the wasp that most people know as “wasp”. This worker wasp is female and her proper name is Vespa Vulgaris or the common wasp. This one is smiling for the camera and is stripping a seat in my garden – see the fresh stripped wood in front of her. This wood is taken away and used for nest building.

What people normally call “wasps” refer to a great mass of insects and there is considerable ambiguity between Europe and North America in the use of common usage names. We have tried on this website to stick to the Latin names with common usage names appended next to the Latin name.

Wasps are classified by their Genus and there are three Genus possibilities – Vespa, Dolichovespula (usually aerial nesters) and Vespula (usually ground nesters). The most common wasps that sting visitors to this website are shown below:

Taxonomic Name Common Name
Vespa Crabro European Hornet (US) , Hornet (Europe)
Dolichovespula Maculata Bald Faced Hornet (US)
Vespula Vulgaris Yellow Jacket (US), Wasp (Europe)
Vespula Germanica German/European Yellowjacket (US)
German Wasp UK
Polistes (var – 700 different species) Paper Wasp

This is not to say that other wasps do not sting – but just says that the probability, particularly if you live in North America or Europe, is that you have been stung by one of the above insects that are defined as wasps.

Wasps are the least-loved stingers of the insect world – they don’t have an upside like bees which make honey!There are some 75,000 different species of wasp. A well established colony of paper wasps can have two hundred or more individuals living on a nest the size of a man’s outstretched hand. An underground yellowjacket nest, on the other hand, can be the size of a beer barrel and sometimes larger. A nest of this size can have five thousand or more hot tempered, stinging insects.

Common wasp - Vespula vulgaris

Social wasps use paper (wood pulp) to construct their nests. The process is simple……. a wasp collects wood fiber by using its mandibles (mouth parts) to scrape it from worn and weathered wooden fences, buildings, telephone poles, and other sources. Sometimes it collects fiber from man-made paper products such as paper bags or cardboard boxes. The insect then chews the wood and mixes it with saliva. This makes the wood fiber extremely soft and moist. After a period of chewing, the wasp adds the paste to the nest structure and spreads it out with her mandibles and legs. After it thoroughly dries; a type of tough, durable paper is formed.

The Sting

Stinging is an excellent defense in wasp colonies against predators and other possible dangers which present a threat to the nests and their occupants. A stinger is actually a modified egg-laying tube which is connected to a venom sac inside the insect’s body. A wasp is quite capable of stinging repeatedly because it can easily withdraw its stinger from the entry point. When a wasp wants to sting, it curves its abdomen downward and punctures the victim’s skin with its sharp stinger. Muscles then drive the stinger deeper into the flesh. Meanwhile, venom is being pumped from the venom sac, through the stinger, and into the wound. It is similar to how a hypodermic needle works. Chemicals in the venom cause the pain and irritation from the sting.

The Life Cycle

Wasps have a life cycle which has four stages:

  • egg,
  • larva,
  • pupa,
  • and adult.

This is called “complete metamorphosis”. The entire process from egg to adult takes several weeks to finish. Wasp colonies have a distinct caste system. It includes:

1. Queens- fertile females which lay eggs,

2. Drones- fertile males which mate with the future queens (by the way, the males do not have stingers and they are born from unfertilized eggs),

3. Workers- infertile females which do the labor of the nest and defend the colony with their stings.

In the US and Northern Europe, social wasps abandon their nests and die in the late autumn or early winter when freezing temperatures have set in. Only the young daughter queens which are born (and have mated with the drones) during the present season will hibernate (in attics, basements, tree trunks, etc.) and live through the winter. The queens will begin their new nests in the spring. Old nests are almost never reused. Though there have been unusual cases when yellowjacket colonies have survived mild winters and they reused the same nests year after year. As a result, the colonies and their nests reached tremendous proportions.

The real bad news for the allergic is that stinging wasps are virtually everywhere! We understand that they are not in Siberia, , parts of South Africa, and possible some of the Balearic islands – any other information on areas where there are no wasps and/or bees would be greatly appreciated!