Introduction to Wasps

The term wasp is used to refer to members of two zoological superfamilies: Vespoidea, which includes spider wasps, paper wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets, and Sphecoidea, which includes sphecid wasps. It also refers, as you can tell from the list in the preceding sentence, to some particular species in these superfamilies. This article will cover all the insects designated by the larger term.

Wasps are in the same order (Hymenoptera) as bees. But wasps may or may not be social insects: some are solitary. The social wasps are those in the family Vespidae, and include the paper wasp, yellow jacket, and hornets. All wasps are characterized by a slender body with a constricted abdomen, hence the term wasp waist.

Because of the familial relationship and the fact that yellowjackets are about the same size as honey bees, 1/2” to 3/4” (1.27 to 1.9 cm) long, and share distinctive black and yellow stripes, people often mistakenly call yellowjackets “bees.” But, like paper wasps and hornets, yellowjackets build paper nests. Unlike yellowjackets and hornets, the nests of the paper wasp lack an outer covering, so they are more often found inside, in attics, for example, for protection.

Dealing with Wasps

Because paper wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets often build their nests near (or even in) homes, they pose a threat to people. Paper wasps are not especially aggressive, but yellowjackets can become serious pests as they seek food that is eaten or discarded by people. They may cluster around dumpsters, picnic spreads, and trash cans in recreation areas (including back yards, patios, and decks).

To thwart yellowjackets, several steps are important:

  • Keep everything as clean as possible. Dropped scraps or crumbs may prove inviting to pests.
  • Use lidded trash containers. A short strip of no-pest strip inside will kill any wasps trapped inside, helping to prevent you from being stung as you try to change the bag.
  • Use netting or screens to enclose outside food preparation and dining areas, when practical.
  • Use covers on drink containers.
  • Wear some form of foot covering when outdoors.

Bug zappers are not effective with wasps.

Three words of caution:

service man 1. Yellowjackets do not have a barb on their stingers: this means they can sting repeatedly.

2. When yellowjackets sting and when they are killed, for example by being swatted, they release an alarm pheromone that alerts other wasps and brings them flying to join in the struggle. It is therefore not a good idea to swat a yellowjacket near others or near the nest.

3. For most people, a wasp sting is a matter of some pain for several hours. If a person is allergic, it may be a question of survival. If someone who is allergic or who has never previously received an insect sting is stung by a wasp, it is best to consult a health care professional.

Experts suggest not disturbing or treating wasps as a problem unless they are really causing one: they are an important part of the ecocycle. However, if they need to be cleared out for health reasons, since some homeowners have suffered multiple stings taking on the task themselves, you may wish to consult a professional. You can help the process by locating the nest, which may require you to watch for awhile. Or you may have to put out some attractive food and lure them in order to get them to show you their home.

Written by Mary Elizabeth

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  • Introduction to Spider Mites
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