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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16 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.

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