7 Common Wasps & Hornets in Arizona (ID Guide)

What types of wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets live in Arizona?

Types of wasps in Arizona

It’s no secret that these insects are the leading cause of screaming at outdoor events! Most of the species below can’t resist investigating a soda or sugary treat. πŸ™‚

Despite their negative reputation, wasps and hornets have fascinating lives. In addition, many are beneficial because of the amount of pests they eat in your yard. They are also important pollinators!

But you do need to be careful around most types of wasps and hornets, especially if you approach their nest. They can become VERY aggressive when defending their home.

7 COMMON Wasps & Hornets in Arizona:

#1. European Paper Wasp

  • Polistes dominula

Types of wasps in Arizona

  • Black with prominent yellow markings.
  • They have thin waists and orange-tipped antennae.
  • Their legs dangle as they fly.

These wasps’ bright yellow and black coloration means that they’re often confused with native Eastern Yellowjackets. However, European Paper Wasps are an invasive species in Arizona. Unfortunately, they are now widespread, and researchers have found that they often outcompete native paper wasps and negatively affect caterpillars like the Monarch butterfly.

One of the reasons they have spread across North America is because of their adaptability. European Paper Wasps will inhabit almost any habitat, including urban and suburban areas. They often are closely associated with humans and nest on or in human-made structures. European Paper Wasps often build nests under the eaves or attics of structures or in pipes, light fixtures, boats, grills, and mailboxes.

Types of wasps in Arizona

These wasps are known to be fairly non-aggressive. However, they will defend their nests, and stings usually occur when humans accidentally come in contact with a nest.

European Paper Wasps are omnivores. They will catch insect larvae, caterpillars, aphids, and other soft-bodied insects that they feed the young. Adults may also feed on flower nectar.

#2. Horse’s Paper Wasp

  • Polistes major
Types of wasps in Arizona
Polistes major. (2022, July 18). In Wikipedia.
  • They may be entirely reddish brown or reddish brown with yellow markings.
  • Their coloration varies widely over subspecies.

Horse’s Paper Wasps are one of the largest wasps in the Polistes genus. This invasive species is native to Central America but has lived in Arizona for decades now.

Horse’s Paper Wasps build small, umbrella-shaped nests with downward-facing open comb. They’re called paper wasps because they create these nests from saliva, chewed wood, and plant material.

Types of wasps in Arizona
Polistes major major. (2022, March 30). In Wikipedia.

Due to the open nature of their nests, these clever wasps try to tuck them into sheltered locations. You may spot them in Arizona hanging under tree branches or building eaves, culverts, or bridges.

As they generally live in warm climates, Horse’s Paper Wasps also have special strategies to deal with the heat. Workers will alternate foraging with gathering water. They place the water droplets around the nest and fan it by rapidly vibrating their wings. This helps to cool the nest through evaporation.

They’re not particularly aggressive, but they will fearlessly guard their nests. Their relatively large size means they pack a painful sting!

#3. Hunter’s Little Paper Wasp

  • Polistes dorsalis

Hunter's Little Paper Wasp

  • V-shaped yellow markings on their heads.
  • They are usually dark brown or black.
  • Alternating dull orange, yellow, brown, and black sections on their abdomens.

As their name suggests, Hunter’s Little Paper Wasps are one of the smaller paper wasp species in Arizona. You’ll often find them in open areas like meadows, yards, or flatwoods.

The nests are open, umbrella-shaped nests the queen builds from chewed-up woody material and saliva. As these nests are so vulnerable, the queen usually selects a sheltered and inconspicuous spot, like in rock piles or hollow logs. In suburban and urban areas, the queens may build under the lower border of roofs or in dense shrubs.

Polistes dorsalis. (2023, July 31). In Wikipedia.

Adults feed on nectar and other sweet substances, including the honeydew from a fungus that affects grasses and cereals, including rye called ergot. Unfortunately, their feeding behavior also makes them vectors for this fungus, which can be detrimental to crops.

#4. Western Yellowjacket

  • Vespula pensylvanica
Vespula pensylvanica. (2023, June 1). In Wikipedia.
  • Females (workers and queens) have a yellow loop around each eye.
  • They are yellow with black markings and no hairs.

Western Yellowjackets are habitat generalists, building their nests in gardens, prairies, open forests, urban areas, parks, and meadows. Typically, they construct their nests in the ground, often using old rodent burrows or other existing holes to get started. Occasionally, they’ll nest in voids in the walls of houses and other structures.

These impressive nests are started in the spring by a queen who mated the previous fall and overwintered in a sheltered spot. The queen begins a small nest and lays eggs, caring for the larvae and foraging for materials until the first four to seven workers have emerged. After this point, the queen remains in the nest, laying eggs.

You may spot these creatures feeding on carrion or buzzing around picnic tables, trash cans, and fallen fruit. Western Yellowjackets are incredibly common to find living around people.

And unfortunately, these wasps can deliver an incredibly painful sting. Make sure you don’t wander too close to their nests, which they aggressively defend!

Another problem with Western Yellowjackets is their nests are typically underground, so it’s hard to spot one. These nests are often found in residential lawns and are inconveniently discovered while mowing the lawn. πŸ™‚

#5. Golden Paper Wasp

  • Polistes aurifer

golden paper wasp

  • Their coloration varies widely with location.
  • Northern individuals are often predominantly black with some golden coloring.
  • Southern individuals often have an almost entirely golden abdomen.

These wasps get their name from their unusual coloration, a softer golden yellow rather than the bright yellow of many other wasp species. Their scientific name, “aurifer,” also alludes to this coloration and is Latin for “gold-bearer.”

Queens start new nests in the late winter or spring. These wasps generally seek out high, sheltered locations to build.

As the name “paper wasp” suggests, the queens construct a nest from a paper-like material they make with saliva and wood fiber. The umbrella-shaped nests they create have open combs on the bottom.

The queens use the nest to hatch workers, which will help guard the nest and hatch more colony members. You may spot these workers visiting flowers, feeding on the nectar, or grabbing insects off plants, which they use to feed the colony’s larvae.

#6. Yellow Paper Wasp

  • Polistes flavus
Polistes flavus. (2022, July 18). In Wikipedia.
  • They are almost entirely yellow.
  • Jade green eyes and smoky dark wings.

These large wasps are among the most easily recognized wasp species in Arizona due to their yellow coloration.

Their scientific name also reflects this: flavus is Latin for yellow.

The queens or foundresses of this species construct their nests in the spring using a mixture of their saliva and plant fibers. They build with surprising precision and can create cell walls that all have an exact thickness.

yellow paper wasp nest

Sometimes, the foundresses work solo on these nests, while other times, sisters from the previous season’s nest will work together. There is always one dominant queen, though, and she’s the one that will lay eggs in the nest.

#7. Western Paper Wasp

  • Mischocyttarus flavitarsis
Mischocyttarus flavitarsis. (2023, May 18). In Wikipedia.
  • Slender bodies with long trailing legs.
  • They’re generally reddish-brown with some black and yellow markings, but their coloration varies with population.
  • Yellow-brown wings.

Western Paper Wasps live in Arizona in forests, suburban neighborhoods, and urban areas near a river or stream. They move along these river and stream openings when they’re out foraging for insects and nectar and collecting fibers to build their nest. They also gather water and take droplets back to the nest to cool it during hot weather.

These wasps may look frightening, but they’re not very aggressive. If Western Paper Wasps feel threatened, they’ll stand on their back and middle legs and point their antennae forward to warn predators. They may also make a loud buzzing noise with their wings as a further warning. While they can and may sting to defend their nests, Western Paper Wasps have the interesting habit of ramming predators with their heads rather than stinging.

Unfortunately for the queens, having their colony taken over is fairly common in this species. The queen will fight the wasp attempting to take her place, and they will bite and try to sting each other. Sometimes, if a foreign wasp takes over, the queen may flee with her daughters following her to build a new nest.

Learn about other creatures in Arizona:

Which of these wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets have you seen before in Arizona?

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