Social Wasps

Social wasp fast facts

  • Queens and females have stings, but males cannot sting
  • Adults feed on sweet liquids
  • Larvae feed on insects caught and cut up for them by the workers
  • Hornets are the rarest of the British social wasps, and easily recognised as they are yellow and brown in colour, and larger than the common German wasp
  • In Europe the hornets have a yellow head unlike the orange head of the British hornets

Social wasps overview

The social wasps are in the Vespidae family. there are 4000 species world wide, and seven species in Britain. Their life cycle is similar to Bumblebees, in that it is annual, with only the newly mated queens surviving the winter by hibernating (see below for recent changes in Hawaii and New Zealand). Wasp queens do not hibernate underground as bumblebees do, but usually choose a dry, cool, sheltered spot. Adults range in size from 10 - 30 mm long.

Social wasps in Britain

Dolichovespula media
Body lengths in mm Queen 18 - 22, Worker 15 - 19, Male 15 - 19.
Flies Jun - Oct
Found in England, Wales, southern Scotland. Arrived in the U. K. in the 1980s. Nests in trees and occasionally on the outsides of buildings.

Dolichovespula sylvestris, tree wasp
Q 15 - 19, W 13 - 15, M 14 - 16
Flies May - Sep
Found in woodlands. Nest at ground level or in cavities in the ground, bird boxes, under eaves, roof spaces, hollow trees and bushes.

Dolichovespula norwegica, Norwegian wasp
Q 15 - 18, W 11 - 14, M 13 - 15
Flies May - Aug
Found in woodlands. Nest in trees, under eaves and on walls.

Vespa crabro, the hornet
Q 23 - 25, W 18 - 15, M 21 - 28
Flies May - Aug
Head, thorax and abdomen with orange/brown instead of yellow/brown
Vespula germanica, German wasp
Q 17 - 20, W 12 - 16, M 13 - 17
Flies Apr - Sep
3 small black spots between eyes. Nest in cavities and holes in the ground. Nest size can reach a diameter of 1.8 m and contain thousands of individuals.
Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp
Q 16 - 19, W 11 - 15, M 13 - 17
Flies Apr - Sep
Anchor-shaped mark between eyes. Nests in cavities, holes in ground, attics, out houses, bushes, almost anywhere. Nest can be as large as 2.25 m in diameter, and can be active as late as November in the south of England.
Vespula rufa, red wasp
Q 16 - 20, W 10 - 14, M 13 - 16
Flies Apr - Sep
2 abdominal segments nearest abdomen have orange/red patches. Prefers drier soil types. Nests at ground level or underground, in grassy tussocks, tree stumps and out houses.

Wasp food and eating habits

Wasp grubs (see the drawing below) are carnivorous, the adults bring them prey which is mainly other insects. This is chewed up into a paste by the workers and queen and fed to the grubs. As many of these prey items are regarded as "pests" by gardeners, it is clear that the wasp should be regarded as the gardener's friend.

Vespula vulgaris, the common wasp showing the spiracles

Adult wasps prefer sweet foods such as nectar, jam, ice cream, and as the adults feed the grubs the grubs exude a sweet liquid which the adult wasps lap up. Towards the end of summer when the queen has stopped laying eggs and all the grubs have hatched into adults, there is no more need for the adult wasps to bring back insect prey, and no grubs to give the adults the sweet substances they crave. So the adults go out and search for sweet substances.

They find sweet nectar in flowers, but as they have short tongues they cannot reach the nectaries of some flowers. It is at this time of year that wasps become a nuisance to man if they discover our sweet foods such as sugar, jam, ice cream, etc. In northern Europe wasps do not store food in their nests.

Wasp larvae

The larvae (above) are carnivorous eating chewed up bits of insects fed to them by adult wasps. In return the grubs exude a sweet secretion in their saliva which is lapped up by the adult wasps. This is why in early summer the wasp is the gardener's friend as it clears her plants of many pests.

The wasp queen

Vespula vulgaris queen, common wasp queen

The Vespula vulgaris queen above and below is 16 - 19 mm long. The nest is started by the queen, and is about the size of a walnut. and contains 10 - 12 hexagonal cells. The queen then lays an egg in each cell. The cells point downwards, but the egg is partially stuck to the side, so it does not fall out. On average each cell is used twice.

Vespula vulgaris, common wasp showing the 3 ocelli or primitive eyes

Above you can see a close up of a queen's head showing the 3 simple eyes or ocelli.

Wasp Adults

Adults are vegetarian eating any sugary liquid, but mainly sugary liquid exuded from the grubs and nectar from flowers. Vespula vulgaris workers (females) are 11 - 44 mm long, and the males are 13 - 17 mm long. In the U. K. the first adult workers emerge around the end of May.

The lifecycle is similar to that of bumblebees, and the queen will have mated the previous summer/autumn. It takes 3 - 4 weeks from the time the egg is laid to the hatching of the adult wasp.

Above and below a queen of Vespula vulgaris. The photograph below shows the powerful jaws needed to scrape bits of wood off fences etc. then chew them into a pulp for nest construction.

Vespula vulgaris queen, queen wasp head close up

How to tell the difference between Vespula vulgaris (the common wasp), and Vespula germanica (the German wasp)

If you look at the black mark on the face of the queen above you'll see that it is long and curved up at the ends rather like an anchor - this is typical of common wasps. The German wasp has 3 black spots instead of this black anchor.

Vespula vulgaris body lengths are queen 16 - 19 mm, workers 12 - 15 mm, and males 16 - 17 mm.

Below you can see the hind leg of a social wasp. Note that it has no pollen basket as would be found in bumblebees and honeybees, as pollen is not an important item in the diet of either adults or grubs.

wasp hind leg, a diagram showing the parts of the leg

Vespula germanica in Hawaii and New Zealand

Vespula germanica has been introduced to Hawaii and New Zealand, and in these areas the normal yearly life cycle of this wasp has changed.

In some nests after the founding queen has dies a new queen takes over and is accepted by the workers - she may be their sister. this can make the colonies perennial, as the weather is so mild.

In such cases the colony can increase to a huge size, and become a serious and dangerous pest.

Hibernating queen wasp

Below you can see a hibernating queen wasp. Note that her wings are folded and held under her legs, probably to protect them.

Quuen wasp hibernating

She is attached to the underside of a log in a log store. The logs were stored outside, and the temperature over the winter months went below minus 17C!

Wasp flight speed

Wasp flight speed has been recorded as 2.5 metres per second, and 250 wing beats per second. Compare this with other insects. They are expert fliers and can fly up, down, forwards and backwards.

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