Yellow jackets are actually the common name of a particular type of wasp. Wasps from the Vespula and Dolichovespula genera are called yellow jackets in the US. Yellow jacket species are smaller than other wasps but more aggressive. They’re more likely to sting than other wasps, but their stings hurt less.
If yellow jackets are a kind of wasp, then why do they have a different name? Why have you heard different things about both types of wasp? Well, despite being part of the same family, wasps and yellow jackets have several important differences. Here’s what those differences are, why they matter, and to tell wasps and yellow jackets apart:
What are wasps and yellow jackets?
Wasps are considered any insects in the Hymenoptera order that aren’t considered bees or ants. Whereas bees feed on flower nectar, wasps are predators that feed on other insects. At a glance, wasps and yellow jackets look and behave very similarly. Only experts could tell the species apart at a glance. To really understand the differences, you have to understand what each of them are:
The most common wasps in Michigan are the common paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus) and European paper wasp (Polistes dominulus). Wasps are inch long, black flying insects with bright yellow markings along their bodies. Common and European paper wasps belong to the Polistinae subfamily of wasps. Polistinae wasps are eusocial, meaning they live together in colonies. Colonies usually consist of 20 to 75 adult wasps inhabiting a single 3 to 10 inch nest.
The term “paper” wasps refers to the paper-like appearance of Polistinae wasp’s colony nests. The wasps build nests by chewing up wood into a paper-like pulp and then molding it. Paper wasps tend to stick their nests to existing structures such as roofing overhangs or tree branches. Colonies become most active in the late summer and early fall, which is their mating season. Paper wasps are not very aggressive, but they will defend their nest from perceived threats.
The most common yellow jackets in Michigan are the German yellow jacket (Vespula germanica), Baldfaced hornet (Dolichovespula macalata), and Eastern yellow jacket (Vespula maculifrons). Yes, the Baldfaced hornet is actually a yellow jacket, not a hornet (we know it’s confusing). They’re slightly smaller than paper wasps and usually measure around ½ to ¾ inches. They look very similar to wasps, with black bodies and yellow or white striped markings. Yellow jackets tend to look slightly more stocky than wasps.
Like paper wasps, yellow jackets are eusocial and build their nests out of reconstituted wood pulp. Yellow jacket colonies and nests tend to be much larger than paper wasp colonies, however. Some colonies could contain up to 15,000 individual yellow jackets. Consequently their nests are much larger, as well. The predators feed on insects, but they’re also attracted to human garbage, especially if its sugary or protein-rich. Yellow jackets are also more aggressive than their wasp counterparts.
How can I tell them apart?
The easiest way to tell paper wasps and yellow jackets apart is to watch their behavior. Paper wasps are relatively non-disruptive. They build their small nests onto high structures such as overhangs, roofing, chimneys, or tree branches. Wasps focus on hunting insects, so they’ll rarely approach you. If you leave wasps alone, they’ll probably leave you alone. You may not even notice there’s a wasp’s nest near you until late summer or fall.
Yellow jackets are far more disruptive. They build their nests closer to the ground in sheltered, dark nooks and crannies. They’re also more attracted to garbage and human food than wasps. You’ll see them gathering around sugary liquids, meat, or rotting materials. Yellow jackets range further from their nests and defend themselves more aggressively than paper wasps. Yellow jacket colonies are also simply larger than paper wasp colonies. If you see a lot of wasps around your home, then those wasps are probably yellow jackets.
How can I keep both away from my home?
Never attempt to remove a wasp or yellow jacket’s nest from your property yourself. Colonies may sting you a dangerous (and painful!) number of times if they perceive you as a threat. Wasps and yellow jackets both build their nests in environments where they can easily access food and shelter. If you can keep them from getting food and shelter near you, they’ll find it somewhere else.
Wasps build nests around nooks and crannies between walls, tree hollows, branches, siding, chimneys, and gutters. Yellow jacket nests build lower, around decks, porches, the undersides of sheds, or even bushes and trees. Seal up gaps and cracks whenever possible. Keep other building sites as exposed as possible. Tie your garbage dumpster and bins closed, and keep the garbage inside in plastic bags. Remove other insect infestations or problems proactively to keep wasps from finding food near you.
If you have a wasp or yellow jacket’s nest on your property, give Griffin Pest Solutions a call right away. Our experts can safely, humanely, and effectively remove the nest. We’ll also help you figure out how to keep wasps or yellow jackets from bothering you again. No matter what kind of wasp has infested your property, Griffin is your pest solution.