The wasp family, broad in its diversity, boasts over 100,000 distinct species across our planet. I bet you've heard of these types of wasps: hornets and yellow jackets. Both are known perpetrators of painful stings but are also integral to the ecosystem. They are just a tiny part of this vast and diverse assemblage.
Stick with us as we journey into 20 species, bringing you closer to these complex yet often maligned creatures.
Related Read: Wasp Facts.
The common wasp eats other insects, fruits, nectar, and sugary substances such as soda and ice cream. Its body has black and yellow stripes, and its face has an anchor-shaped mark.
Moreover, this social insect lives across the Northern Hemisphere. They construct their homes using chewed wood pulp in the ground, tree hollows, or hidden wall cavities. During the peak of summer, the population of a wasp colony can grow to 5,000 individuals.
This creature features a painful sting, which can cause severe pain for allergic people. However, they are essential pest control mechanisms, eating insects that threaten crops and garden plants.
The German wasp has bold black and yellow stripes and shows aggression when its nest is threatened. Originally from Europe, North Africa, and Asia's temperate zones, these wasps live in various parts of the world, including North America and New Zealand.
German wasps are fond of beer, even sipping from the glasses of unsuspecting people outdoors.
They build nests made of chewed wood pulp in human structures. While people consider these insects a nuisance, they control pest populations by eating spiders and small invertebrates. They also eat nectar and fruit.
Moreover, a German wasp’s sting can trigger allergic reactions in some people. However, they only attack when threatened. Unlike bees, they can sting multiple times, though they are not naturally dangerous.
The Red Wasp is primarily black with some reddish-brown markings and is larger than the average wasp. It lives in the eastern United States.
These paper wasps communicate with others using scent trails and body signals. Moreover, they eat caterpillars and feed small insects to their young; adults prefer nectar.
Furthermore, their stings can cause severe allergic reactions, though they are not typically aggressive. Like bees, they are essential pollinators. However, they are also vital pest control insects.
Only the queen and a select few hibernate during the winter, waiting for spring's warmth to emerge and continue their species.
Over 20 species of Yellowjackets live in gardens, forests, meadows, and human structures worldwide. While they may look like bees, a closer inspection reveals their true identity.
Yellow jackets are skilled hunters and scavengers. They eat fruits, sugary drinks, and other insects. And unlike bees, they do not lose their stinger after attacking, allowing them to sting multiple times. These stings can trigger allergic reactions in some individuals.
These social wasps use chewed-up cellulose to create their characteristic yellow, papery homes that hang high up in trees or nestled in the ground.
Despite its name, Bald-Faced Hornets are a type of wasp. They have black bodies with yellow markings and white faces, and they build large papery wasps nests from chewed wood that can support hundreds, sometimes thousands, of wasps.
This wasp lives in Canada and the United States. Moreover, they can become aggressive when threatened, though they also benefit humans by eating flies, spiders, and other pests.
The European Hornet features brown and yellow stripes and can grow up to 3.5 cm, making it the largest wasp species in Europe.
Despite its size, the European Hornet is relatively docile unless an intruder threatens its nest. Like other wasps, its nest is made from chewed wood pulp and is often located in hollow trees or concealed in wall cavities.
European Hornets eat beetles, butterflies, honey bees, grasshoppers, yellow jackets, tree sap, fruits, and honeydew. During the winter, the wasp nest dies, and only the queens survive to establish new colonies in spring.
The Asian Giant Hornet is the world's largest hornet, measuring up to 2 inches long. They have yellow-orange heads and dark brown bodies and are highly aggressive, carrying a potent sting.
Asian Giant Hornets live in the rural areas and dense forests of East and South Asia and the Russian Far East.
Moreover, these hornets are incredibly territorial and will not hesitate to attack if they feel a threat to their nests. Their stingers are 6mm long and can cause excruciating pain and organ damage. Additionally, they can fly up to 100km daily at 40km/h.
Their nests can accommodate up to 700 members that follow a queen who emerges from hibernation in April to start building a new colony.
The Asian Giant Hornet prefers large insects and honeybee larvae. They can destroy entire beehives in only a few hours. Furthermore, they can regulate their temperature to survive cold climates; they “shiver” to warm up their flight muscles before taking off.
Unlike other wasps, like yellowjackets and paper wasps, Mud Daubers build their nests using mud, hence their name. They also take care in choosing the right consistency, texture, and thickness. One can find their nests attached to buildings or under eaves.
Inside the Mud Dauber’s nests are individual cells that contain immobilized spiders, which the wasp larvae eat. As adults, mud daubers become pollinators, seeking out pollen and nectar.
The Mud Dauber wasps enjoy a solitary lifestyle that balances hunting enough spiders to feed their young and pollinating flowers. These solitary wasps can hum and are not an aggressive wasp species.
Sand wasps create elaborate underground burrows on sandy terrain like beaches and dunes2. Moreover, their burrows have separate chambers to store food for their larvae. Each room contains immobilized insects, such as flies or beetles, stung by the wasp and captured.
Moreover, Sand Wasps practice “sand bathing,” covering themselves in sand grains to regulate their body temperature and deter predators. They are active in the daytime, eating flower nectar.
Like spider wasps, the Tarantula Hawk wasp uses a paralyzing sting to immobilize its prey, including tarantulas, hence the name. Once the tarantula is captured, the wasp brings it to a specially prepared burrow. Then, it lays a single egg on the spider’s body. When the larva hatches, it begins feeding on the still-living tarantula.
This solitary wasp measures an average of two inches in length. It has a blue-black body with rust-colored wings.
Despite their gruesome hunting methods, Tarantula Hawks are relatively harmless to humans. They generally reserve their potent sting for their prey. However, if you do provoke them, they can give you an excruciating sting.
Unlike their larvae, adult Tarantula Hawks eat nectar, with a strong fondness for milkweed.
Before moving on to other types of wasps, here’s something to remember: Did you know that all hornets are wasps, but not all wasps are hornets?
The Four-toothed Mason Wasp are identifiable by their metallic blue-black body with a slender cylindrical shape. They are aptly named after the unique distinguishing feature - four teeth gracing their mandibles.
This type of wasp predominantly inhabits North America, from the central United States northeastern region into southern Canada. They are smaller than other wasps and feed their larvae with captured caterpillars and moths.
The European Paper wasps are not native to the United States. Their bodies have black and yellow streaks, which one might confuse with yellow jackets.
These paper wasps flourish in temperate zones and thrive in human-dominated environments. They create their nests in cavity walls, roof spaces, trees, and shrubs.
While most wasps are solitary, these social paper wasps thrive in complex, cooperative societies.
The Chalcid wasp is among the smallest wasps worldwide, measuring only a few millimeters long. However, they control pest populations, such as aphids and caterpillars.
This type of wasp comes in various colors, including metallic blues and greens, muted blacks, and browns. Their modified club-shaped antennae enable them to manage crop pests, indirectly contributing to food production systems.
Their wings also have a unique vein pattern that resembles a natural thumbprint. Additionally, they observe parasitism: they lay eggs on caterpillars, and their larvae feed on their host’s body fluids.
Chalcid Wasps also follow an unconventional reproductive strategy called arrhenotoky, which allows them to produce male offspring from unfertilized eggs.
The Cuckoo Wasp has a metallic appearance whose colors range from blues and greens to reds and yellows. They lay their eggs in the nests of other solitary wasps or bees instead of building nests or collecting food. Once the Cuckoo Wasp's larvae hatch, they consume the host's eggs or larvae.
Moreover, the Cuckoo Wasp has an armored body that can roll into a defensive ball when threatened.
Cuckoo Wasps live in lush forests and arid deserts. Their parasitic reproductive strategy also naturally regulates the population of their host species.
Potter wasps construct small, vase-like nests from mud or clay, hence the name. They carefully mold the material using their mandibles and legs to create a sturdy and protective home for their offspring.
These wasp nests provide a nursery and a pantry for a single egg. Moreover, the wasp ensures that a paralyzed caterpillar or beetle larvae await the hatching wasp for a first meal.
Potter Wasps prefer tropical locales, but they can survive different weather conditions. Their bodies are primarily black or brown with shades of yellow, white, red, or orange.
Additionally, Potter Wasps are relatively harmless to humans and will only sting when provoked. Gardeners appreciate their help in controlling the population of pests such as caterpillars and beetle larvae.
During winter, the Potter Wasp turns its nest into a refuge from the cold. The queen assigns larger cells to fertilized eggs that will become females and smaller ones to unfertilized eggs destined to be males.
Despite its name, the Velvet Ant is a type of wasp. This species was named because the females are wingless and look like ants. However, males have wings and look like typical wasps.
The Velvet Ant has velvety fur with red, orange, or yellow shades. They typically consume flower nectar while living in arid deserts, lush forests, and vast grasslands. They are known as the “cow killer” because their sting is excruciating. If you see one, keep a safe distance.
The reproduction process of Velvet Ants is ruthless but fascinating. They lay their eggs in the nests of ground-nesting bees and other wasps. Once the larvae hatch, they feed on the host insect's eggs or larvae.
Their tough exoskeleton also wards off predators and helps them survive harsh conditions. Moreover, they can emit a loud squeak or chirp when threatened. They can “play dead” to deceive potential threats if all else fails.
Parasitoid wasps boast a slender, elongated body shape coupled with vibrant colors, usually yellow, red, or brown, that effectively serve as a warning to potential predators. They can thrive in diverse habitats, from forests and fields to deserts and urban settings.
As their name suggests, they have a parasitic relationship with their hosts. The female lays eggs inside other insects or spiders, which the emerging larvae consume to survive. This behavior helps keep pest populations in check.
The fig wasp is the only pollinator of figs, and they only lay eggs in figs. During mating, the wasp enters the fig through a small opening called the ostiole, pollinates the flowers, and lays eggs in some of them. Once the eggs hatch, the male wasps create exit holes for their offspring to escape.
Fig wasp species are paired exclusively with a complementary fig tree1. When the female lays eggs, she dies, and the fig becomes the cradle for her spawn. Moreover, the female has an elongated ovipositor and pollen baskets on her underside.
The gall wasp lays eggs on a plant and injects a chemical into the plant tissue, which triggers the formation of a gall, sheltering the wasp larvae.
Despite their small size, seldom exceeding 8mm, these wasps are known for their unusual galls. Moreover, they alternate between sexual and asexual generations, producing galls that house the sexual generation.
During the egg-laying process, the wasp leaves chemical secretions in the plant tissues, prompting the plant to create a protective shell and a nourishing cradle for the incoming larvae. Galls are unique to each gall wasp species, differing in size, shape, and color.
Gall wasps are a food source for various animals and contribute to the diversity of plant life. Scientists have also discovered uses for gall wasps in preventing invasive plant species from spreading.
Spider wasps are sleek, cloaked in a metallic or blueish-black body, and often complemented with vibrant red or orange marks. Their size varies- some as small as 0.4 inches to giants that reach 2 inches long. Spindly legs, elongated bodies, and large curved antennae contribute to their menacing appeal.
Our final type of spider inhabits diverse environments, from tropical rainforests and deserts to your home garden; they are a global species.
These wasps are renowned for their unique lifestyle, especially their hunting ritual, which involves paralyzing spiders using their venom and using them as live food for their larvae.
Wasps have slender bodies with a defined waist, while bees are rounder. Also, wasps have smooth bodies, while bees have hairy ones.
Contrary to popular belief, not all wasps are aggressive. While some species can be territorial and may sting when threatened, others are docile, and importantly, they all play crucial roles in ecosystems, such as pollination and pest control.
Wasps build nests underground, in trees, under eaves, or even inside buildings.
Some species primarily feed on nectar and pollen, while others hunt insects or scavenge on sugary substances.
Unlike bees, most wasps don’t lose their stingers, so they can sting multiple times.
Cook, J. M., & Rasplus, J. Y. (2003). Mutualists with attitude: coevolving fig wasps and figs. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 18(5), 241-248.
Evans, H. E., & O'Neill, K. M. (2007). The Sand Wasps: Natural History and Behavior. Harvard University Press.