What types of wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets live in Pennsylvania?
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. 🙂
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.
12 COMMON Wasps & Hornets in Pennsylvania:
#1. Dark Paper Wasp
- Polistes fuscatus
Also called the Northern Paper Wasp.
- Adults have slender bodies, pointed heads, waists connecting their abdomens and thoraxes, and antennae, which are more curved in males.
- They are dark reddish-brown with yellow bands on their bodies, and males have more yellow markings on the front of their heads.
These wasps are common to see in Pennsylvania!
Dark Paper Wasps often build nests around human homes and outbuildings as long as they can find good sources of wood fibers for construction.
Unfortunately, their proximity to humans sometimes leads to unwanted interactions. Females sometimes sting humans or domestic animals when defending their nest. They are especially aggressive during the early part of the year when the nest is full of brood, waiting to become wasps. Towards the end of the summer, when most of the wasps are adults, they are less aggressive in defending the nest.
These wasps have some interesting eating habits! The adults get most of their nutrition from flower nectar, just like bees! I spot them often on the flowers in my backyard, especially on goldenrod flowers in the fall.
However, Dark Paper Wasps also spend a lot of time catching caterpillars and other small insects. The workers chew up this prey and absorb most of the liquid. They feed the solid portion to older larvae and then regurgitate the liquid for young larvae.
While Dark Paper Wasps can be a bit intimidating, their’ insectivorous behavior actually makes them great creatures for homeowners and gardeners to have around, as they eat a lot of pests.
#2. Bald-faced Hornet
- Dolichovespula maculata
Also called the Bald-faced Aerial Yellowjacket, Bald-faced Wasp, Bald Hornet, White-faced Hornet, Blackjacket, White-tailed Hornet, Spruce Wasp, and Bull Wasp.
- They have black bodies with ivory markings on their faces, legs, thoraxes, and abdomens.
- Look for three white stripes at the ends of their bodies.
Bald-faced Hornets are named for the ivory markings on their face. Despite the name, these insects aren’t true hornets. They’re actually a type of yellowjacket.
Bald-face Hornets don’t have a pleasant reputation in Pennsylvania.
They aggressively defend their nests and can sting repeatedly. But while their appearance and nests can be scary, they’re pretty handy to have around (as long as the nest isn’t close to human habitation).
First, the adults feed on nectar and help to pollinate flowers. In addition, they also kill and eat other types of yellowjackets! Sometimes, in early summer, a nest will be so full of yellowjacket remains that it will have a yellowish cast! Unless their nest is somewhere you’ll come into contact with it, it’s best to leave them be.
I’m sure you have spotted one of their nests before. They are large, papery, and football-shaped. The queen builds these nests by chewing wood material and mixing it with her saliva to make a paste.
Bald-faced Hornet queens usually hang their nests from shrubs or trees. Sometimes, they’ll use other spots, including rocks, buildings, and other artificial materials. The queen typically continues creating workers into the summer until the nest has 100 to 400 individuals!
#3. Eastern Yellowjacket
- Vespula maculifrons
- They are black with yellow markings.
- Their first abdominal segment has a wide, black, anchor-shaped marking.
- Cheeks have continuous yellow bands that don’t completely encircle their eyes.
Eastern Yellowjackets seem to be found in every habitat in Pennsylvania!
In urban and suburban areas, you may spot them in woodlands, parks, pastures, and lawns. They’re not picky!
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! These nests can be huge, as queens produce up to 25,000 individuals over a season.
Another problem with Eastern Yellowjackets is their nests are typically underground, so it’s hard to spot one. The nests are often found in residential lawns and are inconveniently discovered while mowing. 🙂
Eastern Yellowjackets feed on flower nectar and fruit juices (or soda and sugar) but spend much of their time gathering food, such as insects and occasionally carrion, for the colony’s larvae. The larvae wiggle to inform nearby workers that they’re hungry, and the workers go out and capture other insects using their powerful mandibles. The workers cut up, chew the insects, then feed the paste to the larvae.
#4. European Paper Wasp
- Polistes dominula
- 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 Pennsylvania. 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.
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.
#5. Metric Paper Wasp
- Polistes metricus
- They are rusty with black markings on their thoraxes and mostly black abdomens.
- They have an ocelli (simple eye) on their head, black upper legs, and yellow lower legs.
Metric Paper Wasps in Pennsylvania tend to choose large, well-lit areas for their nests and often use sheds, barns, and under the eaves of dwellings. They prefer to build nests near ponds and other water sources as they make frequent trips to drink during the summer.
These wasps are distinct in their nesting habits. Unlike many more territorial wasps, Metric Paper Wasps will share nests with other Polistes species. They also reuse nests for multiple seasons.
Adults get some of their nutrition from flower nectar. They also collect caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects. They feed the solid portion to the larvae and consume the liquid and semi-solid for their own nutrition.
#6. Fraternal Potter Wasp
- Eumenes fraternus
- Black, shiny abdomens with ivory markings on their faces, thoraxes, and bellies.
- They have metallic bluish-brown wings.
Fraternal Potter Wasps are solitary, docile wasps found in Pennsylvania.
The name “wasp” may bring to mind large nests of defensive, often scary insects, but these little wasps don’t come close to that reputation! The females don’t even defend the nests; they only sting when purposely touched.
After mating, females begin building the characteristic little nests that give them their name. She sculpts little pot-like structures of clay and earth, usually securing them to vegetation. Occasionally, she will attach them to houses.
Once these little pots are finished, she begins collecting prey, usually caterpillars and small soft-bodied insects. Rather than eating them herself, she paralyzes the prey and places it into the pots.
Once enough is stored, she lays an egg in the pot, suspended over the prey. Then, she seals up the pot, allowing the egg to hatch, feed, and grow. The females don’t tend to the nests after this point.
#7. Four-toothed Mason Wasp
- Monobia quadridens
- Shiny black with white angled shoulder marks, thin white bands before their waists, and thicker white bands after their waists.
- They have black wings with a metallic luster.
- White markings on their abdomens resemble teeth (hence the name).
Their contrasting black-and-white coloring can make these medium-sized wasps seem a little scary. At first glance, they are often confused with the more territorial Bald-faced Hornet. However, Four-toothed Mason Wasps are solitary, docile wasps in Pennsylvania.
They don’t even defend their nests! However, the females can sting if you handle them, and they’re said to have a sting comparable to a Bald-faced Hornet. Males of the species lack stingers but will jab you with the pointy end of their abdomen, which is said to feel more like a pin-prick.
Females typically build their nests in existing holes. She begins filling her nest by crawling into the tunnel’s far end and laying an egg. Then she hunts caterpillars, paralyzing them with her sting and placing them in front of the egg for the larva to eat when it hatches. When she’s satisfied with the number of caterpillars, she seals this tunnel section with two mud walls with an air pocket between them. She repeats the entire process until the tunnel is full.
These unusual mothers can choose to lay either a male or female. This is because males take less time to hatch. She places all the female eggs toward the back of the tunnel and all the males toward the front so they can hatch and leave without disturbing the female eggs.
#8. German Yellowjacket
- Vespula germanica
Also called the European Wasp or German Wasp.
- Black and yellow with three tiny black dots on their face.
- They have a stout body slightly wider than their head and long black antennae.
Native to Europe, these wasps are invasive in Pennsylvania.
German Yellowjackets are primarily a ground-nesting species, but they will also nest in voids in buildings and are frequently found in urban and suburban areas.
German Yellowjackets are opportunistic scavengers. They will feed on fruit, honeydew, carrion, spiders and other arthropods, human food, and garbage. This flexible diet has been a critical feature in their widespread range expansion.
Interestingly, the size of their colonies is somewhat dependent on climate. For example, in Australia, colonies may have 15,000 workers, while those in the British Isles may only have 6,100 to 6,500 workers.
German Yellowjackets are known to defend their nests aggressively and can sting multiple times. They will often pursue their attackers for long distances. Combined with their large colony size, these factors make them formidable opponents to predators and dangerous to humans with pre-existing health issues and allergies.
#9. European Hornet
- Vespa crabro
- Adults are LARGE and range from .75 in (19 mm) to 1.4 in (35 mm) long.
- They are brown with wide yellow markings.
- They have light-colored faces.
This species is the only true hornet (genus Vespa) found in Pennsylvania!
European Hornets were first reported in the United States in 1840 in New York and have since spread throughout much of the rest of the USA. These hornets are unusual for stinging insects; they fly and hunt during the day AND night.
Not surprisingly, their size allows them to go after larger prey than many other wasps. European Hornets will feed on bees, wasps, yellowjackets, flies, beetles, mantises, large moths, butterflies, and dragonflies. While they eat honeybees, they usually eat one or two and are not a major threat to honeybee hives.
They’re not strictly carnivores, though. European Hornets will also feed on fallen fruit, tree sap, and other sugary foods.
European Hornets make intricate paper-like nests.
The lifecycle of a European Hornet begins in the spring with an overwintered, fertilized queen. She will start building a nest. Typically, these hornets select concealed, sheltered places for nests, such as barns, hollow trees, abandoned beehives, attics, and hollow walls. They cover exposed nests with a brown, papery covering. While they’re typically non-aggressive, these hornets will sting if their nest is threatened.
#10. Common Aerial Yellowjacket
- Dolichovespula arenaria
Also called the Sandhills Hornet and Common Yellow Hornet.
- Black with yellow markings and smoky, clear wings.
- They have stout bodies that are slightly wider than their heads.
Common Aerial Yellowjackets can adapt to various habitats in Pennsylvania. Typically, you’ll spot their papery nests on trees and shrubs, but they will sometimes build them on the side of homes in urban and suburban areas.
These wasps are formidable defenders of their nest and can sting multiple times like other yellowjackets. But this species also has another trick up its sleeve:
Common Aerial Yellowjackets can spray venom at attackers. This venom contains an alarm pheromone, which also helps alert other workers to help defend the nest.
The nest is made from saliva and chewed-up woody material turned into a paste.
These yellowjackets commonly feed high in the trees. In the spring and summer, they prey on various insects, including lacewings, lady beetles, caterpillars, spiders, flies, grasshoppers, and crickets. They will also occasionally eat young hummingbirds and carrion. Much of this protein-rich food is given to the larvae.
Later in the summer and fall, Common Aerial Yellowjackets spend more time going after sugary foods. They’re common sights feeding on fallen fruit in orchards, visiting trash cans, and hovering around sugary drinks and foods at picnics.
#11. Southern Yellowjacket
- Vespula squamosa
- Clear wings and hairless bodies.
- They have black and yellow stripes over their entire bodies, but queens tend to be more orange.
Southern Yellowjackets are often found in close association with humans in Pennsylvania, building their nests in yards, parks, and roadsides. Usually, they prefer to build their nests underground, but occasionally, they will construct them inside walls.
Southern Yellowjacket workers use pheromones to coordinate their attack when defending their nest. These pheromones alert the other workers of danger and tell them where to go. Each individual can sting multiple times, so encounters with these nests often result in multiple painful stings.
Throughout the summer, the colony grows and can reach up to 4,000 individuals. While most yellowjacket species have annual nests, Southern Yellowjackets often have large multi-season nests, particularly in the warm coastal areas and the southern extent of their range. In this case, the workers and original queen will survive for multiple seasons and continue expanding. The original colony typically dies out in more northern areas in the fall.
The adults typically feed on nectar from flowers and other sugary foods. They’re often the unwanted guests circling picnics and garbage cans!
#12. Guinea Paper Wasp
- Polistes exclamans
- They’re typically brown with yellow markings on their heads, thoraxes, and abdomens.
- Narrow bodies, slender waists, smoky black wings, and antennae with red, black, and yellow bands.
Guinea Paper Wasps create small, umbrella-shaped nests with open combs that face downward. To protect their open nests, they typically seek out places that are protected from the rain. Often, this results in them using human-made structures and objects. It’s not unusual to see them building nests in storage sheds, mailboxes, pipes, infrequently used grills, and under the eaves of buildings.
This wasp species is unique in Pennsylvania because ALL of the female workers can reproduce. In the event a queen dies, a worker will take her place.
This raises an important question: What makes a queen different?
Scientists have found that queens have higher glucose, fructose, and trehalose levels. These compounds act as cryoprotectants, preventing ice build-up and allowing queens to survive cold temperatures.
In part due to their small, open nests, both worker and queen mortality rates are fairly high. To cope with this, Guinea Paper Wasps have developed the interesting habit of building satellite nests near their primary nest. The colony will move to a satellite nest if predators like birds or parasites destroy the primary nest.
Learn about other creatures in Pennsylvania:
Which of these wasps, hornets, and yellowjackets have you seen before in Pennsylvania?
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