Guide to Identifying Wasps and Other Stinging Insects


In Part I of our guide, we taught you how to identify bumble bees and honey bees—two of our most critical pollinators (and pretty nonaggressive, to boot!). In Part II we will explore the other common stinging critters in the U.S., teaching you how to identify them and the best practices around keeping you and your family safe.

The Wasp Family

Wasps are an entirely different species from bees. They are carnivores who live off of other small creatures, mostly insects, using this protein to feed their young. Unlike bees, many types of wasps do sting and can be very aggressive. The ability to sting multiple times without harming themselves, and to send out alarm pheromones quickly bringing more wasps to the scene, means that they can be quite dangerous to humans. Let’s look at a few common types that frequently get mistaken for bees in the United States.

Yellow jackets

Yellow jackets are commonly mistaken for bees because of their striped black-and-yellow markings. The major difference is that yellow jackets are smooth—never fuzzy or hairy like bees—and their yellow stripes tend to be brighter and shinier. They also have a thin, “wasp” waist.

Yellow jackets mostly live in the ground (old rodent burrows are common homes) or sometimes in stone walls and are very protective of their colony, often attacking if a person approaches even within a few feet of their nest or if a lawn mower makes a nearby sound or vibration. Unfortunately, individual colonies can contain thousands of wasps which will swarm out of the nest when alarmed, making them very dangerous to humans and their pets. If you see yellow jackets flying in and out of a hole in your backyard, it’s best to get professional help.

Note: Yellow jackets can become more problematic in late summer and early fall, as they start to crave more sugar and their normal sources of food become scarce. This is often when you can find them lurking around picnics and garbage cans. Put lids on your trash cans and cover your sugary drinks!

European hornets

Hornets are a member of the wasp family not native to North America, but the European hornet can now be found throughout large parts of the United States, from the east coast to the Dakotas. With smooth, striped, black-and-yellow bodies, these insects look very similar to yellow jackets, making it hard to tell them apart. They differ from yellow jackets in that they usually nest in cavities at least six feet off the ground, such as the hollow of a tree, and never in the ground. Unlike yellow jackets, European hornets will forage during the day or night, meaning that you can sometimes find them bumping off of porch lights.

Unlike yellow jackets, these hornets are not aggressive unless disturbed, so leaving them alone is usually the best practice. However, if you have a European hornets nest in the exterior of your house, you should seek professional help. Do not block their entrances, as they can chew through wood to find another exit into your living space—making your problem much, much worse.

Baldfaced hornets

To make insect identification even more confusing, baldfaced hornets are not actually hornets, but wasps (the only true hornets in the U.S. are the European hornets mentioned above). Their name derives from their facial markings, which are white and black (the black and white markings extend along their abdomen, as well). These stinging insects like to build their nests high in trees, wrapping layers of a paper-like substance into a large football shape that can be two-feet long. Since each nest is only used for one season, you can often find old, empty nests slowly disintegrating in the forest.

While the incredible size of a baldfaced hornet nest makes people alarmed, these insects are not usually aggressive unless you come within a few feet of their nest. If you see a nest in a shrub in your yard, or in another high-trafficked area, you should seek professional help. Otherwise, these wasps are best left in peace.

Paper wasps

Paper wasps are known for their small, paper-like nests hanging from a single stalk and often found under porch railings, in the eaves of picnic shelters, and in other protected spaces. These wasps come in a range of colors, including orange, red-brown, burgundy, and even some with black and yellow stripes. Once again, the primary difference between paper wasps and bees is that wasps are always smooth, and never fuzzy or hairy.

The good news is that these wasps tend to be less aggressive, their colonies are fairly small, and they will not usually sting unless provoked. The biggest danger for humans is accidentally disturbing a colony, as they like to build their nests in human-created structures. Surprisingly, while these wasps are not terrific pollinators, they can actually help with both gardening and pollination, as they sometimes eat nectar and spread pollen, and since they frequently dine on caterpillars and other pests that can hurt your crops. Bottom line? If you see a paper wasp nest in an out-of-the-way place, you might decide to just let it be.

Being able to identify between bees and wasps is the first step to protecting your family—and our precious pollinators. To learn how to identify bumble bees and honeybees, please visit Part I of our guide. And click here to read about SCA alum Elder Pyatt’s mission to create a self-sustaining and bee-friendly lavender farm in Oregon.