Meet the Vespid Family

“Paper wasp” is a general name for insects in family Vespidae, subfamily Polistinae.  Polistinae also includes members of subfamilies Vespinae (hornets and yellow jackets) and Stenogastrinae.  Our type is in genus Polistinae (same name as the subfamily—confusing enough?).  22 species of Polistes wasps live in North America and around 300 species worldwide.  Some individual species include the apache paper wasp, golden paper wasp, and dorsalis paper wasp. 

What do Paper Wasps Look Like?

They look like most other wasps, with a three-segmented body, skinny waist, small round head and thorax, and an oval or tear-drop-shaped abdomen.  Adults grow to be about half to one inch long.  They have varied colorings depending on species.  They can have black or dark red or red-brown bodies with yellow markings, orange markings, or both.  Their wings are medium to dark gray or brown.  They have smooth bodies.

Life Cycle of the Paper Wasp

Paper wasps are social insects, but their colonies are small, usually under 100 wasps, and there are no specific class of workers.  Nests are built yearly.  Queens hibernate in the winter and then come out to begin a new nest and lay eggs.  They will expand the nest during the warm season and the fertile males will breed with the queen and die, along with the rest when winter arrives.  The new queens will go into hibernation, usually in a crevice in wood.  Tree bark is a common spot for sheltering paper wasp queens, but they will happily use cracks in your house’s exterior. 

Paper Wasp Feeding Habits

Paper wasps are generally good to have around, as they are great pollinators for crops and plants in general.  They also prey on some insects that we don’t want around, like caterpillars and spiders that they take back to the nest to feed to their larvae.  Wasps sting prey to paralyze it and the larvae eat it whether dead or alive. 

Paper Wasp Habitats

Paper wasps are named for their nests.  These are made of a stiff papery material made by the wasps chewing up plant materials containing a combination of fiber and starch, like plant stems.  These wasps look like open paper mâché honeycombs if new or built by a small colony, or enclosed papery teardrop shapes if developed by a larger colony.  They hang from a stalk affixed vertically, called a pedicel.  These are often made on eaves, walls with large gaps inside, windows, attics, and balconies. 

Dangers of Paper Wasps

Like other wasps, paper wasps can sting multiple times.  They don’t look for a fight but will attack if their nest is disturbed.  Wasp venom can not only hurt but can cause severe allergic reactions in some.  Make sure you know if you or your loved ones are allergic to bee or wasp stings and carry medication if allergic.  Paper wasps can also damage plants because of the stems and bark they take for their nests, but if there is plenty of vegetation around, there shouldn’t be a problem. 

Paper Wasp Prevention

You can’t totally keep paper wasps away without moving to a very cold climate, but we wouldn’t worry too much if you have a paper wasp nest on your property, say, in a tree.  If they’re not too close, they’re not on or in your house, and you don’t have allergies, keep an eye on it but leave it alone.  To help discourage paper wasps:

  • Trim your trees and bushes.  If you really want to discourage paper wasps, don’t plant flowers, especially not right around your house. 
  • Seal cracks and holes around windows, doors, outside walls, and foundations. 
  • Fix your roof and shingles
  • Cap your chimney.
  • Keep a snug lid on all trash cans, outdoors and indoors. 

Getting Rid of Paper Wasps

Prevention is the best measure.  If you have a paper wasp nest that’s too close for comfort, don’t try to remove it yourself.  We all know that wasps can sting multiple times, and even if you are not allergic, insect venom is still damaging if the dose is large enough.  If you don’t know where the nest is but there are a lot of wasps around, don’t go looking for it.  Call the pros and we’ll come take a look.  We remove wasp nests in a safe, humane way and treat the area to discourage them from returning.