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The sight of a wasp, any wasp, can drive fear into many people's hearts. Solitary wasps, however, are incredibly interesting wasps that are typically ground nesters and seem to specialize in ignoring people.

blackwasp hovering over flowers
Great black wasp.  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

What Do Solitary Wasps Look Like?

A variety of solitary wasps exist in New York, but we’ll describe a few of most likely to be noticed:

Digger wasp:

Not surprisingly, it’s another ground wasp, but recognizable by its thread-waist and delicate abdomen. Coloring can be mostly black or reddish-orange bodies, with black or orange legs, but always black wings.  Females can be up to 1 inch long (25mm.).

yellow, gold and black wasp with orange legs feeding on a flower
Great golden digger wasp.  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

Mason wasp:

Another black wasp, but this one has either a prominent white band, or yellow bands on its abdomen and the waist is not as ‘thready’ as the mud dauber. ½-3/4 inch (12-19mm). Don’t confuse these with fuzzy mason bees!

black and yellow wasp with yellow legs and black antennae
Mason wasps.  Photo: Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org.  Click photo to see enlarged version.

Mud dauber, black and yellow mud dauber:

Typically black or black with yellow striping on legs, and bronze coloring on the wings, the mud dauber is most recognizable by its color and long, thin shape, and somewhat jerky flying habit. The long, narrow waist (petiole), sometimes referred to as ‘thread-waisted’ is key in identifying it.

black wasp with yellow striped legs and golden to brown wings
Black and yellow mud dauber. Photo: Howard Ensign Evans, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org.  Click photo to see enlarged version.

Potter wasp:

Generally black with some narrow white or reddish striping depending on species. Similar body shape to mud daubers.

black with some yellow wasp feeding on flower
Potter wasp.  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

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Why Should I Worry About Solitary Wasps?

Solitary wasps are very unlikely to sting unless mishandled. They don’t defend their nests, but you may see them interacting in their community. Because they are a predator of insects and spiders, they might be removing pests. A large community of mason wasps, however, can eventually cause some damage by continued excavation of grout in brick walls.

Why Do I Have Solitary Wasps in My Yard?

If you’re seeing these interesting wasps, you’re not alone. All they need for habitat is soil and water to make mud, and the right surface to build on. Mud daubers primarily choose buildings such as homes and barns, and primarily spots out of the rain and sun where a food source is nearby. Potter wasps make a rounder mud or clay nest on plant material as well as buildings. Digger wasps prefer burrows in the ground and don’t use mud for cells. Mason wasps primarily use gaps in mortar or holes in brick walls, instead of mud. These solitary wasps capture insects or spiders, paralyze them with a sting, and place one in each nest cell where it lays an egg. Mason wasps capture caterpillars, place them in the mud cell and then lay the egg directly on it. They then go on to closing up that cell and creating another. Having provided food for the hatchling, adult females of most solitary wasps leave the mud nest and don’t return. Nests are built in communities but each mud tube is created by a single female wasp.

5 pottery-like tube structures attached to a brick wall under an overhang
Mud Dauber Nest.  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

How Do I Manage Solitary Wasps in the Landscape?

Management is rarely needed, but if a mud nest disturbs you, it can easily be scraped off. Destruction of the nest generally ends the life cycle in that particular set of cells, but if it’s a favored area, the community will continue to return. Mason wasps can be discouraged by repairing holes in brick or concrete walls and grout. Digger wasps are unlikely to be noticed.

Always have an action plan in place to care for people and animals who have been stung by stinging insects.