Paper Wasps, Just Like Us – July 2014

If you check under the eaves of your house or other man-made structures around your home, you may very well find a recently founded paper wasp colony. While it might seem awfully late in the season for a queen to start with a new brood, she may found multiple late-season colonies (sometimes called “satellite nests”) as insurance against total reproductive failure in the case of predation. Birds will knock down paper wasp colonies, and having extras ensures that the queen won’t lose her entire reproductive effort.

Unlike honey bees, paper wasp queens continue to forage and defend their nests even after founding their colonies. They don’t specialize solely in child-rearing. Because queens take an active role in provisioning their brood, there is high queen mortality. Perhaps as an adaptation to this, all female paper wasps are capable of reproduction. Workers eschew reproduction not because they are unable to do so, but because it is not their “job” within the colony. Should the queen die, the next in line—generally the eldest—assumes her role. In addition to having a line of succession, some paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus) have evolved facial recognition. Each sister has a slightly different pattern of facial markings that allow her home colony to identify her.

Paper wasps are also dissimilar to honey bees in that only fertile queens overwinter. Workers’ lifespans are brief, lasting only a few weeks, and males are only present for part of the season. In Polistes exclamens, males can be identified by the black marks on their heads and thorax. They also lack stingers. A stinger is a modified ovipositor (egg-laying organ), and no male Hymenoptera sting.

Paper wasps are beneficial garden insects; they are specialized predators of caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects. While some wasps (e.g. yellow jackets) are aggressive, many wasp species are slow to anger. If these animals are in a place where they are not a risk to people walking by, consider saving a place in your garden for these useful working moms!

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Common paper wasp by Ward Upham, Kansas State University,