paper wasps

Paper wasps: Are they worth the sting?

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If you’ve ever had the misfortune of accidentally encountering a gray, papery nest full of bald-faced hornets or running your lawn mower or string trimmer over the entrance hole of a nest of ground-dwelling yellow jackets, you’re well aware of how defensive paper wasps can be. Particularly in the autumn. But you’d be defensive too, if you thought your queen was under attack and you knew that the survival of your queen meant the survival of your species.

All about paper wasps:

  • Members of the paper wasp family (Vespidae) are notorious for their seemingly aggressive behavior in the autumn. These social insects are often mistaken for bees, which they are decidedly not. Though the ground-dwelling species of yellow jackets are commonly called “ground bees”, they are actually wasps.
  • Nests of all species of yellow jackets and hornets are large and paper-like. Ground-nesting yellow jacket species build their papery home underground in an old animal burrow, while hornets build their nests on tree branches or buildings.
  • Almost all species of paper wasps have colonies that do not survive the winter. Instead, they all die at the end of the season and only the fertilized queen survives the winter and goes on to establish a new colony the following spring.
  • Each nest is used only once and is completely abandoned in late fall. Both hornets and yellow jackets are territorial and are not likely to build a nest near an existing one (whether it’s occupied or not). So, if you have an abandoned nest hanging in a tree or stuck to the eaves of your house, let it be. Its presence may prevent a new colony from setting up house nearby. In fact, you can purchase fake nests (like this one or this one) to hang in a shed or porch to prevent hornets or other paper wasps from moving in.
  • In general, yellow jackets and hornets are considered to be very beneficial to the garden. Adults consume nectar, and they collect both live and dead insects to feed to their developing young. The yellow jacket in the featured picture is dissecting a cabbageworm and carrying the pieces back to the nest. Paper wasps are important members of nature’s clean-up crew.

What to do about paper wasps:

The next time you encounter a nest, try to avoid destroying it, if at all possible. Cordon off the area to prevent human contact, giving the insects a wide berth to move in and out of the nest. Remember, all but the queen will die as soon as winter arrives and the nest will be abandoned. If it is not possible for you to avoid the area until freezing weather arrives, have a professional remove the nest. Some species of paper wasps release an “attack pheromone” when the nest is threatened. This can lead to a mass attack on the intruder, causing multiple, painful stings.

hornet nest

The papery nest of hornets will be abandoned come winter. Each nest is used only once.

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Pin it!What should you do when paper wasps make a home in your yard or garden?

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31 Responses to Paper wasps: Are they worth the sting?

  1. Tim Nagy says:

    noooo, thanks!

  2. steve says:

    Got stung by ten at one time. More painful than having taken a bullet in the leg.

    • Christina says:

      Have you ever taken a bullet to the leg? I just rescued my dog from a wasp attack. She had about 50 on her. I got stung multiple times taking them off of her– well over ten times. It was rather painful, but a bullet’s worth of pain it was not.

  3. Caroline says:

    I agree, leave them alone. They do more good than harm.

  4. Jason says:

    I’ve been stung by 7 of them at one time, and that was one of the most painful experiences of my life… So no, leave it be.

    • Mark says:

      Unfortunately you don’t always know they are there. I was trimming shrubs today and there was a nest inside. I got stung 10 to 12 times at least. I hauled butt and jumped into the pool sneakers, sunglasses and all. I pulled my sweatpants off and left them in the pool. I recovered them about 1/2 hr later and there were at least 10 to 20 of them dead but still clinging to the pants. The little ***tards that were trying to swim in the water got a little helping hand moved toward the skimmers. I hope they suffered!

  5. Christina says:

    I tried to leave mine alone, but they almost killed my dog. I am afraid that peaceful co-existence is not going to work this year. I am sorry.

  6. Maria Rubin says:

    We discovered a huge nest in our maple tree after the leaves had all fallen. I liked how it looked so left it there. Thanks for this information. I’ll be sure to share it with my nosy neighbor, who keeps telling me I should cut the nest down so they don’t go back into it in the spring!

  7. Scott Mccard says:

    I was a park ranger and ran over a nest by accident in my driveway with a lawnmower. At first I thought I was being hit in the belly by gravel being slung out by the blade. It felt like ball bearings being shot from a slingshot! I backed up the mower and was still getting stung! I opened up my shirt and the yellow jacket wasp came pouring out! I ran while stepping off the shirt. When I got inside the house I noticed that my belly looked like raw hamburger! I should have gone to the ER but did not.

  8. Shane says:

    We have these all over our lawn, for months and years. Being an avid gardener, I walk back and forth across the lawn everyday, often barefoot or just with shorts on. They move out the way for me to walk and as I go about my business they go about theirs. Really you just need to leave them alone and they’ll reciprocate.

    • M Christman says:

      That’s been my experience, too. My yard is overrun every spring and summer but knock on wood no one gardening or cooking out has ever been stung

  9. Janet says:

    Are you all talking about the yellow paper wasps as we have in Arizona? I understand the yellow jackets and hornets are very aggressive but I don’t seem to have a problem with the yellow paper wasps that I have. They seem to be still tending the larvae in the nest. It is on the eaves of my horse shed on the outside where the wooden windows are (they are closed). The horses are on the other side and the nest is opposite a big hay stack that I just had brought in. Those wasps never made a move toward the guy who was unloading the hay and I go there almost every day and look at them, no aggression. I was misinformed about them and was told to get rid of them. Not sure now if they will all be dying off except the queen. When they say late fall is that probably in November? We are experiencing 85 temps during the day now but 50s at night sometimes 40s. I just don’t want my horses attacked. Any suggestions?

  10. Dave says:

    They go after my grapes. They suck the juice out of them. Have also gone after peaches and apples!

  11. Matt says:

    I bought a fixer-upper home a few years back that had several items left by from the former occupant. One of them was a very old upright piano that was stored on the back porch. I noticed a few large black wasps buzzing inside the porch, but to my “surprise” is when I lifted the top of the piano and there was a fist sized nest full of those big, ugly, black wasps! I dropped the piano’s lid, it slammed down hard, I ran out of the porch, wasps in pursuit, and I made it to the kitchen slamming the door behind me and thankfully not getting stung. I ended up pushing the piano outside and setting fire to it. Good riddance wasps and piano, too!

  12. Glyn says:

    The paper wasps that live under eaves in houses are one of the most tolerant of bees for not attacking. Many times I’ve been working and looked up and here’s a nest a foot from my face with a dozen of them watching me very, very closely. One time three walked out of a lamp post and just buzzed their wings. The noise alerted me and sure enough there the three were inches from my chest. No stings so I let them be and they went back to their business and me, mine. Yellow jackets are a whole different story and I kill every one I can. A group attacked me and my tractor one time while mowing. The tractor was in very slow speed so I jumped off and the tractor proceeded across the field with the yellow jackets following it and trying to sting the tractor. After a 1/4 mile they finally gave up. There are times I’ve killed a nest of the paper wasps because way too close to the front door, but reluctantly. They’ve given me many breaks so I try and do the same.

    • S scott says:

      The image of your slow tractor being chased by bees made me laugh 😂

    • Jill Doetsch says:

      Me too! They live under by eaves. They watch me..its cute. I leave them alone, I’ve been 4 inches from their nest..even gave them a Im their best

    • LYNND says:

      I have been stung by a yellow jacket and, of course, bees, but in all my years the only time I’ve witnessed a paper wasp sting was when my cat stepped on one as a kid.

      My spouse and I have a paper wasp nest under an eve on the side of our house near a path that we use every day. We knocked the nests we saw down over the winter the first year we were in the house but couldn’t dislodge the whole thing (too high for the garden hose pressure to work). That nest site *was reused* the following year but it took a bit of time before we realized that it was active again.

      Beneath that nest my spouse installed an air conditioner through a wall. At that point, we had assumed it was just an empty nest but later I realized that it was much larger than what we recalled so I took a photo and zoomed in and saw that it was not unused (they were flying to/from).

      Apparently, the European paper wasps just didn’t feel my spouse was a threat, despite all the work to the side of the house (about 12′ removed from the eve). My suggestion is to ignore the paper wasp nests unless they’re unusually large in size and/or close to a frequently used door.

  13. Zachary says:

    Paper wasps are fine little neighbors and as long as you don’t get too close to their nest, relatively I aggressive.
    A work of caution. Very hot weather can drive them a little batty and they are more aggressive in defending their perceived territory.
    I’ve let wasps trapped inside my house climb onto my hand to be taken outside with no problems.
    They are fine little creatures with the insectoidal personality of a cat.
    Show them respect and they can be quite neighborly.

  14. Where does the queen go once the colony has died off?

  15. Paco says:

    I had a huge paper nest in my eaves and it fell down on its own – poor wasp engineering. Will they abandon it or keep using it?

  16. Terese says:

    I was stung on the knuckle last week and it hurt like heck. Can’t mow where they are nesting. Does anyone know why the traps say to hang them at least 20 feet away from the nest? Seems like you should put it closer.

  17. Cathy James says:

    Some species will not tolerate you being too close, so 20′ is a safe recommendation.

    As for being stung; your chances are greater with any of the following:

    Viberation irritates wasps so if you are mowing your chance of getting stung is greater.

    Loud noise and lots of movement irritate wasps.

    Wearing cologne or perfume increases your chance of being stung.

    Wearing bright flowery clothes increases your chance of being stung. However, black is the worst color to wear. It irritates wasps. Your safest bet is white.

    • Portia McCracken says:

      I was minding my business, walking my dog and searching for a particular headstone in a cemetery when I got stung on the heel of my hand. I wasn’t making noise, the dog wasn’t barking or digging, my clothes were mostly dark. I didn’t get a good look at the wasp–I was too intent on getting her off my hand–but my impression was a small, dark insect, the size of a yellowjacket but much darker. The sting hurt like hell, the area swelled up and kept hurting for days. Then it started itching. Miserable time!

  18. Catty P says:

    I found one in my tree last week. Now I’m afraid to let my dogs out. So I took a garden hose and put a power washer like nozzle on it and from the ground I aimed it in the hole of the paper nest up in the tree. The water stream was very hard and I totally destroyed this paper nest and the wasps flew away. I have a video of it as well.
    I did not get stung. They didn’t even come close to me.

  19. Christie G says:

    I found an abandoned European paper wasp nest on the gorund and had it sitting in a bowl on my desk. A year later, 2 paper wasps appeared on it! They wouldn’t move far from the nest, so I gave them some pineapple. Sadly, I left them outside and the nest was destroyed and my poor paper wasps were gone. They must have appeared from outside, as it’s unlikely they were pupated inside the nest as they should have appeared earlier –> “Spring colony-founding phase of P. dominula in some areas of North America, where a large group of more than 80 wasps aggregated to reuse and expand an old nest”, although this is Europe… Must be a similar thing though.

    There are many flying around now, but we never had a problem. My father stepped on one was stung, but that’s it.

    I think I just found a paper wasp larva on the ground… Poor baby! Any ideas on what to do with it? Leave it there to cook? I’ve put it in an open jar for now and moved it to the shade. I’d like to raise it, but don’t know if and how it’s possible. Last time, I checked it was still alive. Oh well, circle of life I guess.

  20. Mateo says:

    I just got stung yesterday right on my elbow….. Still swollen and itchy….. Got me twice on same elbow…..

  21. Emily says:

    My two year old got stung by one it was the saddest experience ever!! Luckily I had some activated charcoal on hand and mixed it in some honey. She was instantly better! The swelling was gone in less than an hour. If you have wasp in your yard definitely keep some of this in your medicine cabinet.

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