There are over 30,000 species of wasps in the world-each with unique appearances and behaviors. One of the most well-known types of wasp is the yellowjacket. While they are native to Northern regions, they can be found all around the world.
The name yellowjacket refers to 35 to 40 different species of wasp found in the genus Vespula or Dolichovespula. The Common wasp, the German wasp, and the social vespid are a few colloquial names for different types of yellowjackets.
This article will go through several characteristics of wasps, such as; Appearance, Life Cycle, social life, nesting styles, feeding, and human Interaction.
Each category will examine yellowjackets, wasps that are similar, and wasps that are different. With the goal of better understanding how these diverse creatures compare and relate to each other.
Wasp Vs Yellowjacks – Appearance
Wasps are an incredibly varied grouping. Their size and color range from two to .020 inches and the shades go from intense blues to bright reds. However, they all share a few characteristics. Such as wings, a narrow waist, antennae, and a segmented (nearly) hairless body.
Though they are diverse within themselves, yellowjackets as a group have several common features that make them distinguishable from other wasps.
A yellow jacket’s wings fold longitudinally. They also tend to be shorter than other wasps, ranging from ⅜” to ⅝” long and have a thick build with striking yellow and black markings. These markings are variations of stripes, triangles, spots, and diamonds.
This look is standard for all yellowjackets except for the Bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula Maculata). The bald-faced hornet is a type of yellowjacket that can be around ⅞” long, is colored black with a white face, and is often mistaken for a Hornet.
While the yellowjacket’s appearance is distinct, it is occasionally confused with the paper wasp. Here are a few of the differences between paper wasps and yellowjackets.
Paper wasps are larger and more slender than yellowjackets. Their segmented torso is thinner, more “wasp-like”.
They also differ in their coloring, yellowjackets are typically yellow and black whereas paper wasps are yellow and brown. The yellowjacket has black antennae and the paper wasp’s antennae are reddish-orange.
Another way to distinguish between yellowjackets and paper wasps is in their flight. Yellowjackets pull their legs into themselves while paper wasps leave their legs dangling.
Wasp Vs Yellowjacks – Life Cycle
Yellowjacket wasps mostly live in annual cycle colonies. At the end of winter, around April, surviving queens start their own colonies. Each queen will begin by finding a place for a nest. Once the nest is started the queen will lay several eggs.
These eggs will hatch into larvae, pupate, and become workers. When the workers are mature enough, they will take on building and guarding the nest, scavenging food, and caring for the queen and larvae.
Around August the colony will reach its peak size and the colony will start producing new queens and males. These will leave the nest to mate.
Once they have mated the new queens will find a protected place to stay for winter, usually underground or in a tree. The males die and the rest of the colony slowly declines. The queens alone will survive through the winter, only start the cycle over again in the spring.
Life Cycles Of Other Wasp Species
Most wasps have a similar life cycle to that of the yellowjacket in terms of development stages. However many wasps differ from the annual colony nesting cycle.
One alternative to the typical yellowjacket life cycle is the perennial colony cycle. In mild winters or warm climates, instead of dying out, the wasp colony carries on.
These colonies continue producing queens and males throughout the winter creating a population boom. This results in huge nests, much larger colonies, and even multiple queens. The hyper large nests have been named “Super nests”.
Any social wasp species can have Perennial colonies, but yellowjackets have received the most attention for this adaptive behavior.
Other wasps, such as the female Mud-dauber, go through a nesting period at the end of the season. During this time she mates and builds a nest with individual cells.
When she is ready, she puts one egg in each cell. Along with the egg, she tucks in a paralyzed spider and seals the cells for winter.
Shortly after the eggs are laid they hatch and the larvae chow down on the paralyzed spiders. The larvae stay in the cells throughout the winter, pupating in spring, and finally emerging as an adult in late spring to early summer, only to start the process over again in the fall.
Wasp Vs Yellowjacks – Social Life
Wasps can be divided into two categories; social and solitary. Yellowjackets are among the social wasps, choosing to live in large colonies.
Even compared to other social wasps, such as hornets, yellowjackets have an elaborate social structure with a well-developed caste system.
This system comprises of the queen who founded the colony and dictates the agenda, males whose only purpose and function is mating, and female workers responsible for the colony and its growth.
Yellowjacket colonies have a decision-making process, labor divisions, and exhibit “extremely cooperative and helping behaviors.”
Yellowjacket queens are born slightly larger than the workers and the males, and queens are raised in a separate part of the nest.
In contrast, the paper wasp queens are born the same as the other females. They differ only in having higher levels of protein and conversely they are more inclined towards delayed fertility.
Several social wasps differ from yellowjackets in their colony formation. Instead of having an individual queen, they have swarm founders. These colonies have several queens, allocate work differently, and develop much larger colonies than Yellowjackets.
The organization of these colonies appears to be decentralized, instead of directed by the queen, the workers are self-regulated.
Solitary wasps do not form colonies, preferring to build individual nests. In solitary wasp species, all of the females are fertile. With an equal potential for offspring, each female prepares her own nest.
Several of these solitary species, such as the Digger-wasp, are polygamous and have complicated courtship procedures.
Mud-daubing wasps, also have their set of social arrangements. While the female hunts down and prepares food for the larvae the males will guard the nest. Whenever the female leaves and returns to the nest the male will attempt to copulate with her.
Entomologists speculate this is a way for the male to ensure that the offspring is his. Given that the females will continue to copulate with satellite males throughout the nesting process.
Wasp Vs Yellowjacks – Nesting Styles
When it comes to building nests wasps utilize a great deal of resourcefulness and ingenuity. Social wasps take a similar approach, however, the yellowjacket differs in their preference to form their nests underground.
Yellowjackets utilize old rodent burrows, caverns, hollow trees, pipes, or holes in the ground to conceal their nests. Except for the Dolichovespula Arenaria and the Dolichovespula Maculata (the Bald-faced hornet) which prefer to build aerial nests.
Yellowjacket nests range in size throughout the year, reaching their peak between August and September. Both ground and air nests are made out of a pulpy mess of chewed-up wood fibers combined with saliva.
These nests are encased in a protective covering and have only one opening. They can hold up to forty-five levels of combs, and house up to 20,000 adult workers, though typically they remain roughly the size of a basketball and house only 5,000 wasps.
Other Social Wasp Nesting Styles
Other social wasps, such as paper wasps and hornets construct their nests with the same materials that Yellowjackets do. However, there is where the similarities end.
Paper wasps almost exclusively build their nests off the ground, often preferring man-made structures such as overhangs, archways, or pipes. Their nests are open and only have a single layer of combs. They typically contain no more than 400 cells.
There is a lot of confusion about hornet nests. Many people attribute the large ball-shaped nests built off of tree branches to hornets. However, in North America, these nests are usually the work of the Bald-faced hornet, which is a type of yellowjacket.
Depending on the species, hornets build their nests above or below ground, utilizing crevasses or hanging nests.
Asian giant hornets build their nests suspended off of trees or overhangs. They construct a cover, similar to the yellowjackets’ nest. But they layer their nest in a spiral pattern and allow for multiple entrances along the sides.
Solitary Wasp Nesting Styles
Solitary wasps also build nests as a means to promote their offspring’s survival. These nests can be found on walls, ceilings, or in crevasses above and below ground. Some nests are dug into the ground while others are formed from mud.
These nests vary in location and material, but they all have a “cell” or cells to house eggs and provisions for the larva.
Another strategy developed by the solitary Parasitic wasp (Acyrthosiphon Pisum) is to lay its eggs in live Pea aphids. The wasp larvae hatch and pupate inside the aphid. Utilizing the aphid’s body as food and housing.
Similarly, the tarantula hawk (Pepsis genus) uses this method but plants its eggs in tarantulas instead of aphids.
Wasp Vs Yellowjacks – Feeding
Wasps are typically thought of as omnivorous, particularly the yellowjacket which is sometimes referred to as the “meat bee”. However, wasps’ eating preferences are selective within their lifecycle stages.
In their larvae, form wasps are ferociously carnivorous and can eat large quantities of insects and spiders. As the wasp matures into an adult it gives up meat and subsists off of sugars.
Being helpless, wasp larvae and pupae are fed food that adults retrieve for them. In social wasp colonies, the adults hunt down prey, kill it, chop it up and feed it to the larvae.
As opportunistic scavengers yellowjackets not only hunt down food for their larvae, they also collect it from dead plants and animals.
In solitary wasps, the providing method varies. The general format is to use venom to paralyze their prey, drag it back to the nest, and leave the live body for the larvae to eat.
The alternative method is parasitism where the wasp lays the eggs directly into the food source, as has already been mentioned under nesting styles.
Adult wasps get the majority of their sugar from flower nectar, ripe fruit, and the honeydew produced by aphids. After being fed meat, wasp larvae also produce honeydew that the adults eat.
Another source of sugar for wasps is humans. Human drinks tend to be loaded with sugar making them a perfect meal source and making picnics ground zero for wasp encounters.
Wasp Vs Yellowjacks – Human Interaction
When close to them, all wasps are intimidating. However, yellowjackets are notorious for their aggressive behavior and their run-ins with humans. In the U.S. yellowjacket and honey bee stings are responsible for the most severe allergic reactions.
One of the reasons yellowjackets have such a high sting rate is because their nests are often hidden, making them difficult to avoid.
Yellowjackets also tolerate colder temperatures better than other wasps. During the fall when other wasps have hibernated or died and resources are limited, hungry Yellowjackets are still flying around looking for food.
This further contributes to the yellowjackets’ conflict with humans, who are usually a good source of sugary food.
Though yellowjackets have a bad reputation, all social wasps stand out as being more aggressive and more likely to come into contact with humans than solitary wasps.
This list includes yellowjackets, paper wasps, and hornets. These wasps protectively guard their nests and are capable of calling for reinforcements if any of them feel threatened.
Social wasps also have frequent encounters with humans, largely because they tend to build nests near or on human residences.
While paper wasps and hornets will sting to protect their nests they are relatively docile while collecting or hunting. Yellowjackets, on the other hand, behave aggressively even away from their nest.
A study on Vespula Vulgaris (the Common Yellowjacket) found that these wasps’ levels of aggressiveness varied between individuals and an individual’s aggressiveness varied daily.
They were also able to establish a general pattern that wasps became more aggressive with age.
While social wasps tend to be aggressive protectors, solitary wasps tend to be less aggressive and less likely to come into conflict with humans.
Given that they do not typically stay with their eggs, solitary females have much less to be protective over than social females.
A few solitary males will guard nests for a short time, the males tend to be less threatening and also do not possess a stinger.
The stinger in all wasps is located at the rear of the wasp’s abdomen. Only females have stingers because the stinger is a modified egg-laying organ.
A wasp’s ability to sting is formidable for two reasons. The majority of stinging wasps can sting multiple times and when they sting they inject venom into their victims causing intense pain and/or an allergic reaction.
The yellowjacket is capable of stinging multiple times and its venom is toxic. Typically a yellowjacket sting will result in swelling, itching, redness, and pain around the site of the puncture.
The pain usually lasts no more than two hours. Swelling and redness can last for several days.
Though painful, yellowjacket venom is not deadly even in moderate amounts. It takes over 1,500 stings to get enough venom to kill a grown man, and 300-400 stings to kill a child.
That said, it will only take one sting if a person is allergic to wasp venom.
Most Painful Wasp Sting
While yellowjackets might be the most likely wasp to sting you, their sting is certainly not the worst, ranking a two on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index (zero being no pain and four being the highest).
Many wasps score higher on the pain Index than the yellowjacket. In the wasp family, it’s the Tarantula hawk (Pepsis genus), the Executioner wasp, and the Warrior wasp (Synoeca Septentrionalis) who are the top contenders for the most painful wasp sting.
The Tarantula hawk hunts down and paralyzes tarantulas with its long, curved sting. Its venom permanently paralyzes tarantulas and causes incapacitating pain in humans. It scored a four on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.
A popular “wildlife expert” from Animal Planet, documented his intentional sting from an Execution wasp on YouTube. He claims that the Execution wasp has “the most painful sting,” worse than the Bullet ant which also received a four on the Pain Index.
The sting from a warrior wasp, which is a type of paper wasp found in South America, has been compared to being “chained in the flow of an active volcano,” and has also been ranked as number four on the Pain Index.
It may never be clear which wasp has the most painful sting. More importantly, multiple stings from any of these creatures could put anyone in the hospital, making them considerably more deadly than the yellowjacket.
Can Wasp Cause Problems?
Wasps have been touted as important workers in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. However, even the most beneficial creatures have a dark side.
Wasps are apex predators. Their effective hunting is one of the reasons they are so beneficial, however, when they are capable of whipping out their prey they can become more problematic than beneficial.
Honey bees top the list of the yellowjackets’ preferred prey. Usually, yellowjackets wait outside a beehive and pick off individual bees as they go in and out. Only occasionally will yellowjackets raid a hive.
If a beehive becomes weak, yellowjackets will take full advantage and go on an all-out assault. They call in reinforcements, kill all of the bees, and loot the honey cells. Once the yellowjackets have taken over they will feast on the protein-rich larvae.
There has been a lot of noise from beekeepers about the damage yellowjackets have done to the bee populations in North America.
However, etymologists seem to agree that yellowjackets are not a major problem for bees and that yellowjackets are still more beneficial than problematic.
Like the yellowjackets, the Asian giant hornet typically limits its bee-killing to a few guards or scouts. But every-now-and-then a group of thirty to fifty hornets will target a specific nest, slaughter the bees and confiscate the hive’s resources.
Having evolved in cold climates, there are fewer environmental checks on yellowjacket populations in warm regions. The results of this can be seen in New Zealand, where they have the highest density of yellowjackets in the world.
This large population of yellowjackets consumes the majority of the island’s honeydew. Previously, this honeydew fed several native species of bird, bat, lizard, and insect.
The paper wasp has also gotten the title of pest in several countries, such as New Zealand. Many Paper-wasp species experience a population boom in warm climates. Their excessive numbers stress the environment.
Are Wasps Helpful?
The wasp species vary in many different ways, one constant is they are all considered important actors within their environments.
Yellowjackets, along with other social wasps are prodigious hunters of grasshoppers, flies, caterpillars, and any other rich source of protein.
While larger hornets and solitary wasps often specialize in a type of prey, such as cicadas, tarantula, or aphids.
Both indiscriminate and specialized hunting styles play a pivotal role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. In the U.K. alone, wasps captured around fourteen million kilograms of insect prey throughout the summer.
Yellowjackets are detritivores, performing another useful task by removing dead plant and animal remains and promoting their decomposition.
The adult wasps in most species also flower-hop looking for nectar in a bee-like fashion. In doing so they inadvertently contribute to pollination.
Medical Benefits Of Wasps
Wasps’ appetites are not their only beneficial characteristic. Wasp venom has several useful compounds in it. Researchers tend to focus on peptides (short strings of amino acids).
One team of MIT researchers were able to create variants of wasp peptide that have non-toxic antibacterial properties.
Other uses for wasp peptides have been different kinds of therapies, ranging from cancer treatments to a cell delivery system.
Along with its venom, the structure of a wasp’s stinger has also prompted medical advancements. Scientists have designed a microsyringe needle based on a wasp’s stinger.
The Wrap Up
Yellowjackets are one of three groups of social wasps. While yellowjackets have a distinctive appearance, they share several behavioral characteristics with paper wasps and hornets.
In the way that yellowjackets and other social wasps have a lot in common, yellowjackets have very little in common with solitary wasps.
The social wasps all share similar life cycles and social dynamics. Their nesting practice differs only in location preferences and design. However, yellowjackets have distinguished themselves amongst social wasps with their heightened aggressiveness and frequent conflict with humans.
Like the “Murder wasp” (the Asian giant hornet), yellowjackets have become notorious for invasive overpopulation, bee-killing, and ruining picnics everywhere.
Despite their reputation, it is clear that yellowjackets are far more beneficial to the environment than they are harmful. Which is another trait that yellowjackets have in common with the majority of wasps.