Updated: June 2, 2023

Wasps are fascinating creatures, playing a significant role in our ecosystem by controlling pest insect populations and pollinating plants. But let’s face it, most of us would rather keep a safe distance from wasps due to their painful stings. Understanding how to identify different wasp species can help you avoid uncomfortable encounters and appreciate the important role they play in nature. In this article, we’ll explore some common wasp species and provide tips on how to identify them.

Yellowjackets (Family Vespidae)

Yellowjackets are one of the most common wasp species, and they are often mistaken for bees due to their yellow and black markings. However, there are some key differences between the two insects: wasps have a more elongated body and slender waist compared to bees, and their legs are more visible when flying. Yellowjackets are also more aggressive than bees and can sting multiple times.

Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons)

This species is found throughout the eastern United States, from Texas up to Maine. Eastern Yellowjackets have a distinct yellow and black pattern on their abdomen, with a black dot on each yellow segment. They are known for nesting in the ground, which can cause problems for people walking or mowing lawns.

Western Yellowjacket (Vespula pensylvanica)

As the name suggests, the Western Yellowjacket is found in the western United States. They have similar markings to the Eastern Yellowjacket but may have slightly more black on their abdomen. Western Yellowjackets are known for their aggressive behavior when defending their nests, which are often built in underground cavities or tree trunks.

Paper Wasps (Family Vespidae)

Paper wasps get their name from the paper-like material they use to construct their nests. These nests can be found hanging from the eaves of buildings, tree branches, or other elevated structures. Paper wasps have a slender body and long legs, which are easily seen when they’re flying or resting.

European Paper Wasp (Polistes dominula)

The European Paper Wasp is an invasive species in the United States, originally native to Europe, Asia, and North Africa. They have distinct yellow and black markings on their abdomen and are often confused with Yellowjackets. However, European Paper Wasps have a more slender waist and longer legs than Yellowjackets.

Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus)

The Northern Paper Wasp can be found throughout North America, particularly in wooded areas. They are larger than the European Paper Wasp, with a dark brown or black body and golden-yellow markings. A key identifying feature of this species is the presence of dark vertical lines on their face.

Mud Daubers (Family Sphecidae)

Mud Daubers are solitary wasps that build nests from mud, which they collect in their mandibles. These nests are typically tube-like structures attached to walls, eaves, or other vertical surfaces. Mud Daubers have a long, slender body with a thread-like waist and long legs.

Black and Yellow Mud Dauber (Sceliphron caementarium)

The Black and Yellow Mud Dauber has a distinct black and yellow pattern on its body, with a bright yellow thorax and black abdomen. They can be found throughout North America and prefer to build their nests on man-made structures like buildings or bridges.

Blue Mud Dauber (Chalybion californicum)

The Blue Mud Dauber has a striking metallic blue color on its body and wings. This species is less common than the Black and Yellow Mud Dauber but can still be found across much of North America. They are known for taking over the nests of other Mud Daubers and adding their own mud cells to the existing structure.

Tips for Identifying Wasps

Remember that there are many other wasp species out there, but these are some of the most common ones you are likely to encounter. To help identify a wasp, consider the following:

  1. Location: Where did you find the wasp? Some species prefer specific habitats or structures for nesting.
  2. Size and shape: Pay attention to the size and shape of the wasp’s body, particularly its waist and legs.
  3. Coloration and markings: Look for distinct colors or patterns on the wasp’s body that may help identify its species.

By learning how to identify common wasp species, you can better understand these amazing insects and appreciate their role in our ecosystem. And, perhaps most importantly, you can avoid unwanted encounters with these potentially aggressive creatures. Stay safe, and happy wasp-watching!