Lord of the Stings - Wasp ID Guide

Wasps play a vital part in many ecosystems, including our own gardens. Find out how to identify some, and why not to hate them!

There are over 250 species of larger wasp in the UK, but about 6000 species in total, including tiny parasites and gall-wasps right up to the magnificent brown and yellow hornet, one of our largest insects, with quite a reputation. The wasps most of us know are the nine social species, the paper wasps, named from their nests, including the common wasp, the German wasp and the hornet. 

With a little common sense there is little to fear from wasps and much of interest. They play a vital part in many ecosystems, including our own gardens. Perhaps wasps should be as welcome as bumblebees.

Let’s see what lies behind the fear.

Close up of a wasp, head-on, on an ivy flower

Photo by Paul Hobson

Mellow Yellow (& Black)

  • Black and yellow warning colours
    Wasp colours stand out to protect and warn. They work and, in turn, provide protective camouflage for over 100 species of harmless hoverflies. 
  • The numbers
    A large nest may contain 10,000 wasps at its peak, whereas the much-loved honey bee may have almost ten times that many in a single hive, which they defend just as vigorously.
  • The huge paper nests
    Are they going to take over? The nests are impressive, made from chewed wood pulp, but they are only occupied for one season. If you find one in your loft this autumn, don’t worry: it won’t be used again next year.
  • Picnics hampered
    For most of the summer wasps catch protein-rich garden pests – caterpillars, aphids etc. – and feed them to their growing larvae. These larvae exude a sweet liquid that the adult wasps eat. As well as insects, wasps take a lot of pollen and nectar, and so provide a valuable pollination service for crops and wildflowers – they just don’t have honey for us to rob. In late summer, when there are no more larvae, the adult wasps turn to fruit for sugars. Who can resist a picnic?
  • The sting, why so painful?
    The sting is painful, but most wasps don’t use it lightly, and usually only when threatened or in defence of their colony. It is rarely as bad as childhood memory would have you believe. Swollen stings around the mouth are dangerous, but, statistically, dogs and even lightning are as lethal. Know the signs of allergy, but don’t worry about it too much.
  • Avoiding the sting
    Try to avoid going near the nest, and if you do so, move slowly, especially if you are trying to get a look at their diagnostic head markings.

Identifying wasps

First, is it a queen, a worker or a drone? Queens are the only wasps in spring. They are larger than the summer wasps and are the only ones to survive the winter. The wasp that drops out of a fold in your curtain in the winter will be a queen.

Drones are male wasps that emerge in the late summer and these ones don’t sting. Drones have longer antennae, generally curved backwards. The workers are infertile females and are the most numerous by far. These are the main stingers.

Wasps aren’t easy to tell apart. But face pattern, size and colour can be good guides. 

Not all sociable

You may see the aptly named jewel wasp, with its iridescent sea-green and ruby tail, on walls or near colonies of mason bees. These cuckoo wasps sneak in to lay their eggs next to the bees’ and then eat their larvae.

All wasps are vital parts of our fauna, as pest controllers and pollinators. 
Stick up for wasps!

This article was originally published in the spring 2018 issue of our members' magazine Local Wildlife.

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