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Wasps, Yellowjackets, and Hornets

How to Tell the Difference Between the Stinging Wasps

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Hornet net/comb hanging from under a leaf
Hans Neleman/Photodisc/Getty Images

The vast majority of bees and wasps in our world pose no threat to people. Most prefer to go about their business, parasitizing or preying on other insects. The social wasps of the family Vespidae, however, can be a downright nuisance. Vespid wasps include paper wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets, all of which will defend their homes vigorously should we disturb them. Worse yet, they have a tendency to build their homes in the places we like to spend our time, so there's a good chance you'll encounter them.

In general, wasps can be distinguished from bees by their lack of body hair and thinner, elongated bodies. Differentiating between paper wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets is a bit trickier. All three are types of Vespid wasps, and share certain physical and behavioral traits: narrow wings that fold longitudinally when at rest; larvae reared on dead or living insect prey; nests constructed of recycled wood fibers; and the ability to sting repeatedly. Paper wasps live in colonies of less than 100 individuals, while both yellowjacket and hornet colonies can number well over 100 Vespids.

Paper wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets are all masters of papermaking. In spring, the queen constructs a new nest by gathering wood fibers and turning them into a papery pulp, from which she builds a home. Paper wasps build open, umbrella-shaped nests, often found suspended from eaves or window casings on the outside of your home. Hornets are famous for their massive, enclosed nests which can be seen hanging from tree branches or other sturdy perches. Yellowjackets also make enclosed nests, but theirs are found below ground. Care should be taken to check for yellowjacket nests before using string trimmers or lawn mowers.

All the paper wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets produce new colonies each year in temperate climates; only the mated queens survive the cold winter months, tucked away in sheltered places. The queen emerges in spring, chooses a nest site, and builds a small nest in which she lays the first eggs. Once the first generation of workers matures, these wasps will expand the nest for succeeding generations. In late summer or fall, the old queen dies, and a new one mates before her siblings die off. The old nest usually degrades over the winter.

Hornets and paper wasps prey on live insects. Their nests are often provisioned with caterpillars to feed their young. Anyone who has enjoyed a meal outdoors in the summer can tell you that yellowjackets like sweets and proteins. Yellowjackets will feed on dead insects, but are just as likely to sip your soda. Of these three types of Vespid wasps, yellowjackets are for certain the greatest nuisance to people.

Behavioral Differences Between Wasps, Yellowjackets, and Hornets

Wasp Paper wasp Yellowjacket Hornet
Type of Nest Open, umbrella-shaped paper comb Enclosed paper comb Enclosed paper comb
Nest Location Suspended from eaves and other protected locations Usually subterranean, sometimes suspended Often on trees or shrubs, sometimes eaves
Size of Colony Usually less than 100 More than 100 More than 100
Feeding Habits Preys on live insects Scavenges dead insects, sugars Preys on live insects
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