As part of the Polistes genus of wasps, paper wasps can vary in appearance but are generally black or brown with yellow or brown striping. They are not fuzzy like bees, and can be recognized by their obvious ‘waist’, a narrow or extended petiole between thorax and abdomen and their long legs. This makes them appear more delicate than bees and yellow jackets.
European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula, ¾-7/8 inch (19-22mm). The most common (yet non-native) paper wasp in the Northeast, often seen coming and going from their umbrella shaped nests under the eaves of your home. With similar coloring to yellow jackets, they can be confused with their more aggressive counterparts unless you take a closer look. European paper wasps have long legs, long tapered abdomens and orange-tipped antennae. Yellowjackets have short legs and are more compact and smaller, but often have much larger colonies.
Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus, ¾ inch, (19-22mm). Northern paper wasps are not as common because the European paper wasp has taken over most of their habitat. They have the same body shape, but are dark brown with lighter brown or coppery brown or yellow markings. Their colony habits are the same.
Wasps build open gray, papery nests out of saliva mixed with chewed wood or paper litter. The fiber (cellulose) paste is used to construct walls and cells for raising a brood. Nests vary in size and location, but are started by overwintering mated queens in early spring. Once the queen has raised a few workers, they take on the task of building and feeding while the queen focuses on egg-laying. Paper wasp queens are known to invade and take over nests of other queens. Only female wasps have stingers because a stinger is a modified ovipositor (egg-layer). Male wasps are among the last raised in a nest, and only function to mate with the new queens. Polistes wasps forage for nectar and soft-bodied insects, therefore reducing the number of caterpillars.
Unlike yellow jackets, paper wasps build open “umbrella” nests without an envelope or covering and that consist of a single layer (comb) of egg cells. Nests are often found on the underside of eaves or overhangs that protect the nest from rain. Because nests are also built inside voids such as metal pipes used in fencing, or the underside of unused equipment, they are often overlooked until an active nest is disturbed. It is important to understand that wasps have a role in the environment and most stinging incidents occur during accidental or ill-advised interaction. Many ‘bee sting’ incidents are caused by wasps. Wasps and many bees can sting repeatedly, while honey bees leave the stinger in the flesh. Reactions to venom vary, so be prepared. Integrated pest management for wasps helps reduce the chance of interaction, protecting both this important insect, and you and those around you.
The occasional paper wasp is not a concern, unless you meet by surprise—many stings occur when we don’t notice a stinging insect on something we grab or sit on. Wasps are often attracted to events with food and drinks and this can be problematic in late summer or fall. Your best bet is to scout throughout the summer for places where a nest could be hidden—hidden nests cause problems when humans and pets startle the occupants. Here are tactics to reduce wasp problems:
- Avoid wearing perfumes, fragrant or flowery lotions, shampoos, conditioners and soaps.
- Avoid swatting at wasps, or squashing them; crushed wasps emit a scent that may attract nest-mates. Gently blow off, or brush off a wasp that has settled on you.
- Avoid walking barefoot in lawns with clover or other flowering weeds.
- Scoop live wasps out of swimming pools and place them away from busy areas.
- Watch for signs of nests by watching for wasp activity, and remember to look up at the eaves of the roof and hollow trees. Doing this—a tactic called scouting—in the spring helps you find nests while their populations are small.
- In spring and early summer, before using equipment that has sat idle, carefully look at and inside the equipment for wasp nests.
If there is any concern about a wasp or bee nest, consult a professional pest management company or beekeeper.
Paper wasp queens begin nest building in spring. Unless they are near a doorway or an area where we spend time outdoors, we don’t see the activity until the nest is large. Paper wasps forage in gardens while looking for soft-bodied insects used as a source of protein for the larvae. Later in summer, you might see Polistes wasps (along with yellowjackets) around picnic foods, drinks, trash bins and compost piles. This is normal activity.
The best way to reduce problems is to prevent them. Learn to scout for signs of wasp activity in spring and early summer. For instance, simply hosing down a new paper comb early in the season can be helpful. If you find a large nest which can’t be ignored, call a pest control expert, or your local cooperative extension.
Here’s a timeline for best management against wasp and hornet problems:
Early spring through summer:
Monitor buildings and grounds for wasp and bee activity on a weekly basis, on warm sunny days.
Late spring through summer:
When problematic, knock down paper wasp nests on buildings using a strong jet of water, a long pole or a low-risk pesticide. Fewer wasps will be on the nest during the midday hours, but there is risk at all times of day so wear protective clothing and keep your distance. Before you start outdoor projects, check for nests in trees with holes in them, decks, railings, eaves, the undersides of outdoor furniture, and branches of trees and shrubs.
Late summer through fall:
On a weekly basis, continue to monitor buildings and grounds for wasp activity in sunny weather. If you find one that you can keep isolated from people and pets, leave it be. Remember that once the season is over, adults will leave the nest. If activity is on playground equipment or by a door, make a plan to remove the nest with a strong spray of water, or using a spray insecticide according to the label. Reduce attractiveness of an area (to scavenging wasps) by minimizing food and food trash when possible. Consult an expert if you find an active colony that poses a stinging risk to people and pets. Note where you find nests so you can make the sites unavailable for the following season.
Yellowjacket container traps may reduce the number of late season paper wasps and yellow jackets attracted to a specific area, but hang them around the borders of the area, not centered in the area, and start using them two weeks before a September or October event.
Plan a prevention strategy for the following season. Raise awareness among your family and neighbors or building staff about how using IPM can reduce stinging insect risks for the following season. Old nests are not reused, however if the space where a nest was built is large enough new wasps will build new nests in the same space. Seal or fix openings and entryways that have been used by paper wasps, for example roof eaves, loose flashing and the ends of fence pipes.
Always have an action plan in place to care for people and animals who have been stung.
For more information on paper wasps, see Paper Wasps: Friend or Foe?