For a lot of people, just hearing the word “wasp” summons instant intimidation. Chances are good you think back to a time you were running away from a wasp or trying to stop one from getting into your house.
But wasps are actually beneficial insects to have around the lawn and garden, and they are pretty amazing creatures.
How many types of wasps are there? There are literally hundreds of thousands of different wasp species!
In this post, we will introduce you to some of the most common wasp types so you can more readily identify them.
What is a Wasp?
Many people wonder, “Are wasps a type of bee?” The answer is “no.”
Wasps are insects that belong to the order Hymenoptera and the suborder Apocrita. By definition, they are not bees, even though bees also belong to the same suborder. They also are not sawflies, which belong to a different suborder.
The easiest way to recognize a wasp is by looking at its waist. The waists of wasps are narrow, in contrast with those of sawflies.
Are wasps hornets? Not all of them. But hornets are wasps. This is true of yellowjackets as well.
How Wasps Can Benefit Your Garden
Here are why you want these stinging insects in your garden:
- Like bees, wasps are pollinators.
- Wasps may help to control the population of unwanted insects in your garden, protecting your plants.
- Wasps are pretty. Yes, this is not a popular opinion—but bear with us. The next time you see a wasp, assuming you are not running away, take some time to look at it. Their forms are sleek, elegant, and beautiful.
Now you know some reasons to encourage wasps to live in your garden instead of destroying their nests, let’s check out some well-known wasp types.
If there is one type of wasp that sends chills down your spine, it is probably the yellowjacket (yellowjackets may be spelled as one word or two: “yellow jackets”).
In total, there are 16 types of yellowjackets. They are about the size of bees. These wasps generally feature bright yellow and black stripes. Some have white stripes, however, or sport red markings.
Where there is one yellowjacket, there are more, because these are social wasps that live together in colonies. Before you see a yellowjacket land, you might notice it moving from one side to the other, back-and-forth quickly.
Some people are allergic to yellowjackets, and may experience severe reactions if they are stung. Symptoms can include problems breathing, dizziness, vomiting, sweating, a tight chest or throat, coughing, and more.
Occasionally, yellowjacket stings can be deadly for those who are allergic—especially if the person was swarmed.
Call 911 if you believe you or someone else is having this type of reaction.
The good news is that yellowjackets generally will leave you alone if you leave them alone (mind you, with their aggression levels, that means keeping a very safe distance).
2. Paper Wasps
Alongside yellowjackets, paper wasps are probably the most famous wasps. Like yellowjackets, they are also social wasps.
There are various types of paper wasps, and they can range quite a bit in terms of their appearance and coloration.
What they have in common are their nest construction methods. The nests look like they are made of paper. The material is actually one engineered by the wasps themselves, which use their saliva to make it out of plant fibers.
While many people are intimidated by paper wasps, these wasps are less likely to attack you than yellowjackets.
3. Murder Hornets
“Murder hornets” is the colloquial name given to the Asian giant hornet, also sometimes called the “Japanese giant hornet.” It is the biggest hornet in the world. The length of the body can range up to 1 ¾ inches, and the wingspan can be up to 3 inches across. The stinger can be up to a quarter of an inch.
If you are stung by just one so-called “murder hornet,” you will probably be all right. But if more than one murder hornet manages to sting you at once, you may be in trouble. There is a neurotoxin in the venom, so even if you have no wasp allergies, you could die.
In the western world, Asian giant hornets have received increased attention in recent years. Since 2019, some of these large wasps have been spotted in North America.
4. Bald Faced Hornets
This type of wasp goes by a number of other names, including “white-faced hornet,” “white-tailed hornet,” “bull wasp,” and “spruce wasp.”
It actually is a type of yellowjacket rather than being an actual hornet. As some of its nicknames indicate, there are white markings on its face.
Since they are social wasps, you should stay well clear of their nests.
5. Cuckoo Wasps
… And now for something completely different. Here is a type of wasp you will not confuse with any of the others on this list. Also called the “emerald wasp,” the cuckoo wasp has a brilliant iridescent body.
Deep green and blue hues are most common, but some cuckoo wasps also have red, gold or orange on their bodies. Indeed, they look like little living jewels. Sometimes they are even referred to as “jewel wasps.”
While we have focused on social wasps in this list so far, cuckoo wasps are solitary wasps.
This is not an aggressive type of wasp. In fact, if anything, it will surprise you with how timid it is. If you scare a cuckoo wasp, it is not likely to sting. Indeed, some cuckoo wasps can even roll up into a ball to try and protect themselves, which is called “volvation.” You have probably seen pill bugs exhibit this behavior.
While the cuckoo wasp may not be a threat to you, however, it should freak out some other insects in your garden.
The pregnant cuckoo wasp sneaks up to the nest of another type of wasp or bee. It lays its eggs among the rest.
The host returns to the nest, and does not notice the imposter eggs among its own. When the cuckoo eggs hatch, the cuckoo larvae devour the hosts’ young. To add insult to injury, the predatory larvae will then also eat whatever the host parent brought its children to eat.
6. Mud Daubers
Another type of wasp many people are familiar with is the mud dauber, also called the “dirt dauber” or “mud wasp.”
Just as the paper wasp is named for its papery nests, the mud dauber is named for its nesting material, which is mud.
It may be hard to recognize a mud dauber from a visual inspection, since they can look quite different from one another.
Their nests can differ quite a lot as well, depending on the type of mud dauber at work. For example, the “organ pipe mud dauber” is named for the resemblance of its nests to organ pipes. The “blue mud dauber,” on the other hand, builds a nest with a completely different shape.
7. Thread-Waisted Wasps
The thread-waisted wasp is a solitary wasp belonging to the family Sphecidae. The name of the wasp refers to its incredibly slender waist. The waist is long enough that the back part of the abdomen almost appears at a glance to be separate from the rest of the insect. You can recognize this wasp both by its thin waist and its black and reddish coloration.
8. Cicada Killer Wasps
The wasps known as “Cicada killers” are sometimes mixed up with the “murder hornets” we shared previously. They also are called “giant cicada killers” and “sand hornets.” But they are not technically hornets.
Many people are frightened of cicada killer wasps due to their size. These wasps are solitary, however, and are not aggressive. And even if one does sting you, you probably will hardly feel it.
Cicada killers sometimes engage in dive bombing. You might mistake this for an attack—but that is the point. It actually is a feint, not a real attack. But it is more than enough to send a lot of perceived threats fleeing.
Whereas you might look to trees and eaves to spot many other types of wasp nests, you’ll want to keep your eyes on the ground to spot cicada killer nests. As the name implies, these wasps attack and feed on cicadas.
Get to Know the Wasps in Your Garden (from a Safe Distance)
We hope you found some of what you learned in this wasps identification guide interesting and useful.
Once you identify the wasp types in your yard, research more about them. While you may feel wary of them (for good reason in some cases), you may be surprised to discover they are helping you control garden pests and are pollinating your plants. You might also be amazed by some of what you learn about their life cycles, communities, and abilities.
As you get to know wasps as friends of your garden, you may find that your feelings about them change. You still will not want to get too close to them, but you may smile the next time you see one of these sleek, beautiful insects flitting around your flowers.