What’s The Difference Between a Yellow Jacket and a Wasp?

German yellow jacket (Vespula germanica) perched on a wooden board

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:


Polistes dominulus European Paper Wasp on a wooden board

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.

Yellow jackets

Vespula maculifrons Eastern yellow jacket on a pink flower

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.

Letting the Honey Bees Just Be

honey bee on blossom

Certain species of stinging insects, like honey bees and bumble bees, are very beneficial to Michigan’s environment since they pollinate crops and flowers. The flowering plants and crops provide food to bees and bees help with plant reproduction. It is a pretty good relationship for both parties.

About the Honey Bees

Honey bees naturally nest in tree cavities or other suitable sites, and forage in forests and fields where flowering plants are abundant. However, as cities continue to grow and land is used increasingly for agriculture or other purposes, bees’ natural habitats are dwindling.
Habitat destruction is a possible reason for the recent decline in both native bee species and honey bees. The search for suitable nesting sites becomes more difficult and interactions with people increase as honey bees seek out nesting sites in homes or other human occupied structures.
Concerns over loss of habitat and pollinator health, as well as the confusion over which stinging insects pose a threat and which deliver the environmental benefits we mentioned earlier, have been well-documented in the media.

The honey bee is one of the “good guys” and Griffin Pest Solutions knows and respects that. We work closely with local beekeepers to protect bee colonies unless they pose a threat to the public. Griffin only uses products specifically labeled for stinging insects and applies them with great care to prevent bees and other pollinators from being harmed.

Recently one of our service technicians encountered a swarm of honey bees resting in a tree and after assessing the situation he spoke to the property owner. We helped the customer rope off the area to prevent anyone from getting too close, after a few restful hours, nature was able to take it’s course with the honey bees moving along.

What can you do?

But how do you know what stinging insects are friends and which ones are possible foes?
Aggressive stinging insects, such as wasps (i.e. yellowjackets) and hornets are often easily mistaken for “bees.” Knowing the difference between various stinging insects can help people avoid getting stung and know when it’s necessary to have a nest or hive removed.
If you have any doubt on whether or not a stinging insect is harmful, to please give Griffin Pest Solutions us a call. We will come out and make a proper identification and, if necessary, provide treatment recommendations.

We also strongly encourage homeowners not to try to move or destroy a stinging insect nest on their own – this could cause serious harm to you and your family – and leave that task to a trained professional.
If you have questions or concerns about stinging insects call or e-mail Griffin Pest Solutions at 888/547-4334 or callcenter@https://www.griffinpest.com/ for more information and a free estimate.

And, for additional information on honey bees and other pollinators, check out http://www.pollinatorhealth.org/