It can be difficult to identify different types of wasps, just like it’s easy to get confused with bees. Not only are there dozens of types of wasps around that look very similar, but you can have several types around your home at the same time. However, wasps tend to be much more aggressive than most bees, and they can sting you multiple times if you stumble on them and they feel threatened. So, being able to quickly identify which type of wasp you’re encountering is key.
Knowing what type of stinging insect you have around your yard can save you from painful stings. Most people will spot a nest in their yard and decide to get rid of it, even if it could put them in danger to do so. This quick guide is going to help you figure out which type of wasp you have in your yard and whether or not you should call in a professional to help get rid of wasps.
Solitary Wasps or Social Wasps
Wasps fall into the Hymenoptera order, and they share this order with ants and their bee cousins. There are currently two main types of wasps you can encounter, and they’re either solitary or social creatures. Below is a quick outline of each category to give you a better idea of what you’re dealing with.
When it comes to types of wasps, being social doesn’t necessarily mean that they live in huge colonies. A traditional nest for wasps will usually only have 12 or so insects. The bigger wasp nests can easily hold up to 10,000 insects, but they fall very short of the 50,000 worker bee nests. The social wasps are part of the Vespidae family, and this includes yellow jackets and hornets. This is one of the most aggressive wasp types alive, and they’re usually predators.
The largest amount of wasps will be solitary, and they’re usually parasitic. They also don’t build colonies, unlike the social types of wasps. There are four main categories when it comes to solitary wasps, including:
- Cuckoo wasps (Chrysididae family)
- Tiphiid wasps (Tiphiidae family)
- Scoliid wasps (Scoliidae family)
- Velvet wasps (Mutillidae family)
Different Wasp Types and Breeds
When you look at wasps and bees, wasps are a very different species. They are carnivores, and they like to eat smaller creatures and use the protein to feed their young. Unlike the more docile bee, wasps usually are much more aggressive and will sting. The ability to sting more than once without harming themselves and sending out alarm pheromones at the same time to bring more wasps to the area, make them very dangerous for humans. We’re going to look at the most common types of wasps below.
1. Bald-Faced Hornets
Despite what you may think with the name, bald-faced hornets are actually a type of wasp. The only true hornet in the United States is currently the European Hornet. The name of this wasp comes from the facial markings they have, and this includes white and black coloring. The black and white markings will also appear on the abdomen. This is a stinging insect that likes to build nests very high up in trees, and they wrap layer upon layer of a paper-like substance into a large football-shaped nest that can be up to two feet long. Since they only use the nest for a single season, you can find empty, old nests slowly breaking apart in the trees.
The larger size of this type of wasp is cause for alarm for many people when they see them, but they’re usually not an aggressive species unless you get within a few feet of the nests. If you happen to see a nest in a shrub in your yard or in a high-traffic area, you should call the professionals to help remove it. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to leave them be.
2. Blue-Winged Wasps
Despite what the name may lead you to believe, you won’t spot any blue-winged flying insects in your yard. This type of wasp comes with blackish-blue wings, and in most cases, you won’t actually see the blue. However, they’re relatively easy to identify with the orange abdomen and the bright yellow splotches near the wasp’s waist. They work well for pest control, especially when it comes to the Japanese beetle that will destroy your garden by chewing through the flower leaves.
3. Braconid Wasps
This type of wasp is very small, and it’s easy to mistake them for flies. They have red bodies with black heads, and the legs, wings, and antennae are also black in color. Braconid wasps have a longer needle that looks like a stinger, but it actually isn’t one. Through this needle, this type of wasp can deposit eggs deep inside holes in trees to help shield them from predators.
4. Cicada Killer Wasps
As the name suggests, this type of wasp prefers to prey on cicadas and rarely threatens humans. They have black bodies with contrasting, bright yellow markings on them. It’s common to see them working together to build a nest, and you can mistake this nest for a smaller animal burrow.
These wasps will hunt and attack cicadas in midair before paralyzing them with their sting and carrying the bodies back to the nest for the larvae to feed on. Adult cicada killer wasps don’t actually feed on their prey, but they’re attracted to flower nectar. So, you shouldn’t be surprised if you see them around your garden.
5. Cow Killer Wasps
Also called the Eastern Velvet Ant, this type of wasp is a solitary one with a parasitic nature that lays the eggs in the middle of bumblebee colonies. The females in this species don’t have wings, and the sting is supposedly strong enough to kill a cow. This is where the name originates.
6. Cuckoo Wasps
This type of wasp is very easy to spot due to the metallic green coloring on the body with black legs and wings. This is a smaller sized insect that gets the name from the habit of laying eggs in other bee nests. As a species, they’re not a hugely aggressive type as they have smaller stingers. Once one of these wasps feels cornered, they tend to curl up and hope they survive rather than attack desperately like other types of wasps do.
7. European Hornets
Hornets are actually a member of the wasp family but are not native to the United States. You can find the European hornet throughout big portions of North America, from the Dakotas to the East Coast. They have a striped, smooth yellow-and-black body that resembles the look of traditional yellow jackets and makes them hard to tell apart. However, they differ from yellow jackets in the fact that they tend to nest in cavities that are a minimum of six feet off the ground, like a hollowed out tree. They never nest in the ground.
Additionally, this type of wasp will forage at night or during the day, so you can find them running into your porch lights. This wasp won’t be aggressive unless you disturb it, so avoiding them is usually the best thing you can do. However, if you have a nest on the exterior of your home, you should call in a professional. Never block the entrances because they can chew through wood to find other easy to get into your living space, and this will make your problem dangerous.
8. European Paper Wasps
This paper wasp type isn’t native to the United States. However, this type of wasp usually comes with yellow and black striping, and this makes them easy to confuse with the more common yellow jackets. They’re slightly smaller in size than Northern Paper Wasps, and they’re great when it comes to pest control as they like to feed on cabbage worms, caterpillars, and hornworms.
9. Four-Toothed Mason Wasps
Four-Toothed Mason Wasps look a lot like the Bald-Faced Wasp, and it gets the name due to the protruding mouth parts it has that look like teeth. As far as comparing them to other types of wasps, they have black hairless bodies and a very small size. You can recognize them relatively easily due to the white markings on the back. They like to hunt moths and caterpillars to feed to the larvae.
10. German Yellow Jackets
German Yellow Jackets look like the more common yellow jackets, and they have the same yellow and black striped pattern. However, this type of wasp comes with a spade-shaped black mark on the abdomen that makes it easy to tell from common yellow jacket species.
11. Great Black Wasps
This type of wasp is part of the bigger Digger wasp family, and they like to live in burrows in the ground. They’re significantly bigger than other wasps, and you can tell them apart due to the shiny black bodies with a blue tint. They rarely attack humans, so they’re not nearly as dangerous as they seem. Unlike many wasps, these ones will do pollinating work while they feed and they’re great for pest removal.
12. Ground Digger Wasps
This type of wasp is a buzzing, big, hovering insect that has no problem getting right up in your personal space. Even though they’re generally non-aggressive and gardeners adore them because they’re good at permeating the soil and pollinating flowers, their gentle reputation can be deceiving. If provoked, the females of this species can and will use their stingers. This type of wasp is all over North America, especially when you get into any area east of the Rocky Mountains.
13. Horntail Wasps
This is a mean-looking type of wasp that has brown-colored wings with a jet black body. Females look like they have a very large stinger, but this large needle-like protrusion is actually how they lay their eggs. They tend to inject the eggs deep into tree trunks where the larvae will stay protected until they mature.
14. Mud Daubers
Mud Daubers are solitary types of wasps that have slender bodies with yellow wings and yellow markings. They get the name from the fact that they typically live in the mud where they dig nests into the ground. It’s common for them to dig one-inch tunnels side by side and deposit a single egg in each one. You can find these nests in porch ceilings and under eaves, as well as in sheds, barns, or garages.
15. Northern Paper Wasps
Paper wasps get the name for the paper-like, small nests that hang from one stalk and are commonly found under porch railings, in picnic shelter eaves, or in any protected space around your home. You can find this type of wasp in a range of colors, including reddish-brown, orange, black and yellow striped, or burgundy. The biggest difference between these wasps and bees is that the wasps are always smooth, and they’re never hairy or fuzzy.
On a good note, paper wasps tend to be much less aggressive and the colonies are on the small side. They usually won’t sting you unless you provoke them. The biggest danger would be to accidentally disturb a nest. Even though these wasps aren’t fantastic pollinators, they can help with both pollination and gardening as they will eat nectar and spread pollen. They also like to eat caterpillars and other pests that can damage your vegetables or flowers. However, if you spot a nest out of the way, leave it be.
16. Potter Wasps
This is a solitary type of wasp, and they can be beneficial if you find them around your garden as their main hobby is finding and killing caterpillars. They’re usually black with a yellow band by the thorax and a yellow band on the abdomen. They won’t build nests, but they like to take over abandoned ones. Once they source a new nest, they’ll hunt a caterpillar, paralyze it, take it to the nest, and lay eggs. The eggs will hatch, and the larvae will feed on the caterpillar until they’re big enough to fly.
17. Scoliid Wasps
This type of wasp is primarily found in the south, and they all share physical characteristics like bright eye colors or colorful spots on their abdomens. These are beneficial wasps as they like to eat beetle grubs or pests like the Japanese Beetles or June Bugs in your yard.
18. Southern Yellow Jackets
When you see this type of wasp, you’ll see the unmistakable, vivid yellow and black pattern. They’re extremely aggressive not only toward people, but also toward other species of yellow jackets. What’s more, they won’t hesitate to invade any nests of weaker species they find. Once they have a nest, they’ll defend it fiercely, and they have a spade-like stinger that they can use several times before they die.
19. Spider Wasps
As the name suggests, this type of wasp will attack and paralyze spiders with their venom as they come across them. Spider wasps come with a distinct coloring with reddish or bright orange legs and black bodies. They tend to build their nests in mud jugs that mud dauber wasps abandon. These wasps are very strong, and they can carry a spider to the nest before laying eggs near the dead bodies. This will give the newly hatched larvae a food source.
20. Thread Waisted Wasps
Even for a wasp, this type of wasp comes with a very thin waist, and this is where the name comes from. They feature a black coloring with orange or red bulging abdomens. They have skinny and long legs that they use to anchor themselves onto a plant. They like to live in mud nests, and they attack via ambushing their prey. They like to paralyze smaller insects with their venom and lay their eggs in the victim’s bodies.
21. Yellow Jackets
Many people mistake yellow jackets for bees because they come with striped yellow and black markings. However, the biggest difference is that this type of wasp is smooth, and they’re never hairy or fuzzy like bees. The yellow stripes also tend to be shiner or brighter, and they have a thinner waist.
Yellow jackets are a type of wasp that likes to live in the ground in old rodent burrows or in stone walls. They’re extremely protective of their colony, and they’ll attack if you were to approach within a few feet of their nest or if you’re using a lawn mower nearby and it makes vibrations or sounds. Individual colonies can contain thousands of wasps, and they’ll all swarm out of the nest when they’re alarmed. This makes them incredibly dangerous to people and pets, and you should never attempt to get rid of a nest on your own.
How to Identify a Wasp vs. a Bee
Since there are so many different types of wasps around, it’s not always possible to tell which wasp you’re looking at if you go strictly by size. Some are very small and will be less than half of an inch, while others are very large and intimidating, like the Asian Giant Hornets that can easily get 1.6-inches long with a bigger queen. However, there are a few physical traits that will help you tell them apart.
Some species of bees are wasps are considered to be social and live in colonies, but bee colonies are always much larger than wasp colonies. The biggest wasp colonies will rarely get larger than 10,000 insects, but a honeybee hive can easily have up to 50,000 insects or more.
Most types of wasps have much less hair than bees because wasps aren’t primarily pollinators like bees are. When bees flit from flower to flower, they use the hair on their body to collect pollen and store it in tiny baskets on their legs. For the most part, wasps don’t pollinate, so they don’t need the tiny hairs. This is why they look more smooth than fuzzy.
Most types of wasps will come with a very slim waist, unlike what you see on bees. The wasp’s abdomen will narrow down to the upper portion where it meets the thorax. However, the exception to the rule is hornets as they don’t have a slim waist, so it’s easier to mistake them for bees.
Types of Wasps – Frequently Asked Questions
Since wasps have the ability to be very dangerous to humans if you come into contact with them, having questions about them is very common. A few of the most commonly asked ones are below.
1. Can wasps be dangerous?
Most types of wasps are willing and more than ready to protect the nests and themselves by giving a venom filled, painful sting. German yellow jackets are very aggressive and will drive other animals away from their nest area. The venom that wasps can inject in both animals and people is strong enough to trigger a severe or even life-threatening allergic reaction. Since wasps are dangerous pests, you want to be very careful around them.
2. Why do you have a wasp problem?
Your home, yard, or other structure, woodpiles, and trees all give various types of wasps shelter to build their nests. The outdoor eating areas, gardens, garbage, and compost piles all give wasps areas to forage for food for their larvae and themselves that are close to home.
3. Where can you find wasps?
Most types of wasps prefer to hunt, live, and build nests outside. Paper wasps put their nests up off the ground in trees, under decks, on utility poles, in the corners or door frames, and under roof eaves. German yellow jackets like to make their nests inside voids in outbuildings and homes, and this is a problem for property owners.
4. How do you safely get rid of wasps?
First off, you don’t want to attempt to get rid of any type of wasp on your own. Even if you think they’re more docile, they can get aggressive when you disturb their nests. Instead, you should call in a professional exterminator and allow them to get rid of the nests for you to avoid injury.
5. How can you stop another wasp invasion?
Wasps live and breed outdoors, and controlling or preventing them can be very challenging. However, following the prevention tips below, you can protect your home from another wasp invasion:
- Place woodpiles and vegetable gardens away from your home’s exterior
- Put a tight-fitting cap on your chimney
- Put light-fitting lids on recycling bins, trash cans, and compost bins
- Put weatherstripping around your doors and windows
- Reduce how much flowering vegetation you have on your property
- Repair any torn screens
- Seal and repair any openings in your roofline or exterior walls
- Trim any bushes, tree limbs, and shrubs away from the home’s exterior
You now know that there are several types of wasps that can present a huge problem if they take up residence in your yard. This quick guide allows you to identify them and figure out the best way to get rid of them while minimizing the risk to yourself or anyone around.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.