Most people I know hate and fear wasps. I’ve always been intrigued by them; they are quite beautiful looking insects – social insects – that have an important role in ecosystems. Their nests are incredible and I found and photographed a large nest constructed this year in our roof cavity.
This nest is about the diameter of a football (soccer ball) and gives you an idea of the intricate structure of a wasp nest made up of thousands of thin fans of paper-like material.
Unlike honey bees, wasps do not have wax-producing glands and those that make these kinds of nests construct them from a substance derived from wood pulp. They usually chew on dead or weathered wood and you can sometimes find wasps stripping thin layers from man-made wooden objects like park benches, panelling on houses, or exposed window frames. Wasps mix this wood with saliva to produce a paper-like material that is used to construct their nest.
You can see how each fanned layer of paper is made up of bands of different colour. This is presumably because the layers been progressively built up by wasps returning with wood pulp sourced from different types and colours of wood.
The final effect is really beautiful and it’s impressive to think that this kind of large organised structure, which houses the queen’s larvae in combs and regulates temperature, is the result of thousands of individual wasps working together. It is only used for one season before being abandoned as the winter approaches and the majority of the colony dies from cold.
Nicolas Gallagher lives and works in San Francisco. He’s on Twitter and shares software using GitHub.
- Wasps Use Wood to Construct Paper Homes
- Turning Wood Into Paper
- Which Wasps Make Nests?
- Controlling Wasps Nests
- How a wasps nest is made
- A pest controller says he felt guilty about killing the 5,000 wasps and many more grubs after being called to the “amazing sight”.
- More from UK
- The making of a hornet nest
- Wasp Nests – Identification And What To Do About Them
- What do wasp nests look like?
- Wasp Nest Identification
- Wasp Nest Construction
- Signs Of Wasp Activity
- Where Do Wasps Build Their Nests?
- Wasp Nest In Shed Or Garage
- Wasp Nests In Chimneys
- Wasp Nest In The Compost Heap
- Wasp Nests In The Loft Or Attic
- Seek Assistance If A Nest Is Large And Intolerable – Take Steps To Deter Them In The Future
- The Eaves Of A House Or Building
- How To Remove A Wasp Nest And Deter Them In The Future
Wasps Use Wood to Construct Paper Homes
Getty Images / Danita Delimont
Animals & Nature
Paper wasps, yellowjackets, and bald-faced hornets all make paper nests, though the size, shape, and location of their nests differ. Paper wasps build umbrella-shaped nests suspended underneath eaves and overhangs. Bald-faced hornets construct large, football-shaped nests. Yellowjackets make their nests underground. Regardless of where a wasp builds its nest or what shape the nest is, the process wasps use to construct their nests is generally the same.
Turning Wood Into Paper
Wasps are expert paper makers, capable of turning raw wood into sturdy paper homes. A wasp queen uses her mandibles to scrape bits of wood fiber from fences, logs, or even cardboard. She then breaks the wood fibers down in her mouth, using saliva and water to weaken them. The wasp flies to her chosen nest site with a mouth full of soft paper pulp.
Construction begins with finding a suitable support for the nest – a window shutter, a tree branch, or a root in the case of subterranean nests. Once she has settled on a suitable location, the queen adds her pulp to the surface of the support. As the wet cellulose fibers dry, they become a strong paper buttress from which she will suspend her nest.
The nest itself is comprised of hexagonal cells in which the young will develop. The queen protects the brood cells by building a paper envelope, or cover, around them. The nest expands as the colony grows in number, with new generations of workers constructing new cells as needed.
Old wasp nests degrade naturally over the winter months, so each spring new ones must be constructed. Wasps, yellowjackets, and bald-faced hornets don’t overwinter. Only the mated queens hibernate during the cold months, and these queens choose the nesting sites and begin the nest building process in spring.
Which Wasps Make Nests?
The wasp nests we frequently encounter are made by wasps in the family Vespidae. Vespid wasps that construct paper nests include paper wasps (Polistes spp.) and yellowjackets (both Vespula spp. and Dolichovespula spp.). Although we commonly refer to them as hornets, bald-faced hornets are not true hornets (which are classified in the genus Vespa). Bald-faced hornets, Dolichovespula maculata, are actually yellowjackets.
Controlling Wasps Nests
Although paper wasps, yellowjackets, and bald-faced hornets can and will sting if threatened, that doesn’t mean you need to destroy every nest you find. In many cases, you can leave the nests alone. If a family member has a venom allergy, that’s certainly a legitimate reason for concern and measures should be taken to minimize the risk of a potentially lethal sting. If wasps located their nest in close proximity to or on a play structure, that can be a concern as well. Use your judgment, but don’t assume every wasp nest will put you at risk of being stung.
Why should you let a colony of stinging wasps live in your yard? Nest-making social wasps are largely beneficial insects. Paper wasps and bald-faced hornets prey on other insects and play an important role in controlling plant pests. If you eliminate these wasps entirely, you may give garden and landscape pests free reign to destroy your prized ornamentals and vegetables.
Many yellowjackets are also entirely predatory and therefore beneficial, but there are a few species that scavenge on carrion or dead insects and also forage on sugars. These are the wasps that cause us trouble because they’ll gladly sip your soda and then sting you when you try to swat them away. If scavenging yellowjackets are a problem in your yard, then it might be worth taking measures to prevent wasps from establishing nests. Problem wasps include:
How a wasps nest is made
A pest controller says he felt guilty about killing the 5,000 wasps and many more grubs after being called to the “amazing sight”.
Wednesday 27 August 2014 16:38, UK
A pest controller received a shock when he was called to deal with a wasps’ nest covering most of a single bed in a woman’s spare bedroom.
John Birkett of Longwood Services Pest Control insects said the insects must have been building the giant nest in the house in Winchester, Hampshire for the whole summer.
He estimated the huge colony contained about 5,000 wasps, thousands more grubs and around 500 young queens.
In order to deal with it he had to spend several hours fumigating the room wearing a bee suit as the insects attempted to sting him to fend him off.
He told Sky News: “When I went upstairs and went into the room, It was the most amazing sight I had ever seen.
“There was a nice quilt on the bed and the woman wanted me to save it but when I pulled it, the nest split in half.
“Inside, there were layers and layers of grubs being produced. The pattern was wonderful.
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“The wasps were attacking me as I pulled at it. They were covering my veil. All I could do was keep spraying.
“In some ways it was good fun but I also felt a bit guilty about it. All these little souls had worked their guts out to produce this. I feel for everything I kill.
“But they can be quite dangerous, so I had to carry on until there was one left.”
He said by the time he had finished, the dead wasps lay about an inch deep on the floor and on the window sill.
The mattress had an eight inch hole where the wasps had eaten their way into the bed and the pillows were also ruined.
But he said he managed to save the knitted bedspread.
It took several more hours to clean up as the wasps continued to be dangerous – their stings remain active long after death.
Mr Birkett said he had only ever seen two or three nests as big in his 40 year career as a pest controller and they had been in roof spaces.
Most nests he has had to deal with in homes have been little bigger than a tennis ball.
He said the homeowner – a woman in her 50s who wanted to remain anonymous – had not spotted the colony for several months because it was in an upstairs room that was rarely used.
The house was old and was partly built of wood and the wasps appeared to have gained access through a gap in the roof eaves, he added.
Wasp nests are made of a substance similar to paper that the insects produce by chewing wood into a pulp and then sticking it together with saliva to form a honeycomb-type structure.
The making of a hornet nest
A bald-faced hornet. (Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto )
The Hudson Valley’s early spring warmth awakens the Dolichovespula maculata (whitefaced or bald-faced hornet) queens. The shiny black-and-white, nearly inch-long beauties emerge from their hibernation in the ground, behind tree bark, in a rotted stump or a crack in a wall.
Whitefaced hornets are only found in North America. Though they are black and white with no yellow, they are a kind of yellow jacket and not a true hornet. They are in the Vespidae family, meaning they are wasps and not bees.
Each queen that came through the winter in good health begins building her nest. She must hunt insects to eat, giving her strength to continue building. She has never seen a baby nest, yet instinctively knows how to build a perfect one. She chews wood and mixes it with the starch in her saliva and spreads it with her legs and mandibles. Yes, hornets were making paper long before we were.
At first, the nest is about two inches in diameter, with a single comb, containing about a dozen cells. The queen lays an egg in each cell. Larvae hatch, eat and grow until they fill their cells. Then they spin a white silk cover, enclosing themselves in the cell cocoon, where they metamorphose into hornets. They chew a hole in the cover and emerge to help the queen hunt, feed the larvae and build the nest. It takes about three weeks to go from egg to hornet. By the time the first two or three worker hornets (half-inch long) emerge, the comb has about 40 cells.
To this point, the queen built the nest, fed herself and her larvae, laid eggs, avoided predators, protected her nest, and used her body to keep her brood warm on cold nights. She always knew what to do and when to do it. Her body enabled her to skillfully perform complex duties with precision.
Soon there are enough worker hornets to do all the tasks the queen used to do, except lay eggs. For the rest of her life, the queen only lays eggs and somehow creates enthusiasm in the workers, causing them to perform their duties with zest. Without the queen, workers become lazy and lose interest.
The nest continues to grow and produce hornets. A large Hudson Valley nest may contain 300 workers, each with the ability to repeatedly inflict painful stings. By contrast, honeybees can only sting once because the process kills them.
The hexagon cell structure the hornets use is a very efficient design. Each of the six sides is also one of the sides of the six cells surrounding it. There’s no other way to get as many cells in the same amount of space, which makes the combs strong. In fact, humans have borrowed it and use in many modern structures. The hornets build these perfect hexagons deep in the nest in near total darkness.
Until late summer, the nest only has females — the queen and her worker daughters. Then the hornets know it’s time to build bigger cells for the new queens, with normal sized cells on the edges of the combs for the stingerless, half-inch-long males. I’ve seen nests with a small comb with small cells for males at the bottom of the last queen comb. It’s as if they suddenly realized there weren’t enough males to mate with all the new queens.
The combs are built into the nest from top to bottom. The worker combs are at the top. Some small nests complete their cycle by mid-September, while some large nests are still going strong until the cold kills the larvae in late November.
There are only males and new queens in the final stages of a nest. The workers are not replaced and die out. The ruling queen, having served her purpose, also dies. The reason I say, “ruling” is because, the queen overseeing the nest at the end may not be the foundress. She may be there resulting from usurpation. That is, she may have taken over the young nest after the foundress died while hunting or she may have attacked the nest after it was well-established and killed the foundress. It’s unknown how often nests are ruled by usurping queens, but it’s not unusual (see page 277 of “The Social Biology of Wasps” by Albert Greene, edited by Kenneth G. Ross and Robert W. Matthews, 1991)
The males have a sweet, short life. They are born, mate with the new queens and die without doing any work.
Only the new queens live beyond autumn, to hibernate until aroused by another Hudson Valley early spring’s warmth.
Mike Riter studies hornets and their nests for fun. He was raised in Germantown and lives in Greenport.
Wasp Nests – Identification And What To Do About Them
What do wasp nests look like?
A wasp nest, depending on the species and number of wasps, can be a fantastic structure – truly an architectural masterpiece to rival the honeycombs made by honey bees!
It’s true that wasp nests are not usually welcomed by many people, but it has to be said that on balance, wasps are very beneficial insects both as pollinators (whose role is probably not fully understood), and natural ‘pest control’ – they can help keep down populations of crop eating вЂpestsвЂ™. They are largely beneficial in the garden, although you may think otherwise if you have lots of them feeding from the ripe plums from your plum tree.
There are actually thousands of wasp species, and most are solitary species and are pretty harmless, but the type of wasp people are mostly concerned about, are the black and yellow social wasps, which may be attracted to sweet, sugary drinks.
This page is mostly about social wasps.
I genuinely recommend this book on the right – it will inspire and educate children (and even any adults who read it!).
My generation and earlier, were brought up to ‘kill just in case, and in ignorance’.
I believe understanding helps to replace fear with respect. I’m convinced that fear, the corresponding release of pheromones, not to mention any accompanying arm waving etc, actually provokes stings. Please help spread the word and re-educate people about wasps!
Here, I will provide information about wasp nests and some video, but if you are worried about wasp nests, then there are ways you can deter wasps from building a nest where they are not wanted, as I’ll explain below.
Wasp Nest Identification
How do you know whether you already have a wasp nest?
Of those wasps which build their own nests, and depending on the species in the country you are in, and whether they are social or solitary wasps, wasp nests can vary in size, construction material and appearance, but are typically greyish or straw coloured in appearance.
You may come across nests in the ground, or aerial nests hanging from tree branches or eaves of buildings, for example.
IвЂ™d like to thank Kelly Pinnick for permission to use the following photographs.
This nest (social wasp) was inside a shrub, and the picture was taken in the UK. As you can see, this nest has a papery appearance, as if there are leaves of grey paper stuck together in a kind of spherical ball shape.
These photographs show a little of the inside of a wasp nest. You can see the cells are neat construction of hexagonal shaped cells – a super efficient way to use space and fit compartments together, whilst using the minimum amount of materials (and hence resources!). Indeed, this is exactly what honey bees do!
These are the cells where wasp larvae are reared.
Nests are only used once, and wasp colonies only last a season вЂ“ a little like bumblebees, because only the queens survive to establish future colonies. In warm weather, and maybe in different geographical regions, a colony may thrive longer.
Wasp Nest Construction
Wasps are magnificent architects! Truly!
Here is an excellent short YouTub video of a wasp nest outside a window by Vangelis Tsalesis showing wasps in the process of building a nest.
However, whilst it is amazing (and I like wasps), it is also somewhat likely to be intimidating in such a location – which is a shame, because it’s also very interesting. And I suspect this nest could become huge if left. Such a nest would require professional removal.
Signs Of Wasp Activity
You may see tell tale signs of wasp activity in the form of tiny scratches on wooden fences and garden furniture as below.
Seeing these markings could indicate there is or has been at some point, a wasp nest nearby.
Last year, wasps here were collecting material from our garden fencing. They were using it to construct a nest in ivy growing up an old tree in our neighbour’s garden. Our neighbours had sold the house and had already moved out. Unfortunately, I was unable to get myself into a position to be able to take a photograph of the wasp nest. The new neighbours removed the old nest before I had the opportunity to see it. A disappointment for me!
Where Do Wasps Build Their Nests?
As stated, a nest may be in the ground – or in a compost heap, for that matter.
When building aerial nests, wasps commonly build their nests in trees, shrubs, hedgerows, and in my experience, fruit bushes such as raspberries, where they may provide excellent pest control as well as a brilliant pollination service (especially for autumn raspberries), but may cause concern in case of stings.
Below is an image of a wasp pollinating our raspberries. You can read more about wasp pollination here.
However, they may select other placesвЂ¦.
Wasp Nest In Shed Or Garage
Nests are commonly found in sheds and garages, and this photograph below provides a clear image of a nice smooth looking wasp nest in its entirety, that was found in a shed.
Wasp Nests In Chimneys
Another favourite place is the chimney вЂ“ my sister had such a scenario. Take into account that the nest was basically paper, and could be a potential fire hazard, so I advised her against lighting a fire in order to ‘smoke the wasps out’. Anyway, this could have backfired and made the wasps very angry!
In my sisters case, fortunately, she did not use that particular room (where the fire place was located) very often, and it being a warm summer, she did not need to light the fire. She simply kept the door closed to keep the wasps out of the rest of the house.
Later in the year, when the wasps were no longer active, she removed the nest from the chimney, and got the vacuum cleaner out to clear away any dead wasps left behind in the room.
Wasp Nest In The Compost Heap
For a couple of years, we had a nest in our compost heap. At that time, the composter was made of plastic, and close to the back door of the house. There were wasps going in and out all the time. I am especially tolerant, however, and didnвЂ™t worry about the nest. I simply stopped using the composter for some months. Later, we dismantled the compost bin, and moved to another area of the garden. The wasps did not come back. We then acquired a larger compost bin, and bumblebees moved in, and successfully reared workers, males and new queens :).
Anyway, I was never stung (and nor have I ever been stung by a wasp), nor was my husband (though he has previously been stung – at that time, he used to hate wasps, but he has since developed an appreciation for them, and lets them be).
I find I am able to keep calm around wasps, and believe this is part of the answer, but that’s just my opinion.
It’s very curious that some people are stung and others are not. I can tolerate wasps landing on my arms or hands. Similarily, I have seen videos of beekeepers who handle whole colonies of honey bees – bare chested, and with no hat – and are never stung, whereas most beekeepers where gloves, overalls and veils. I can also handle bees, and despite having red ants in nearly every allotment bed on our allotment, have never been bitten at all – but I do love ants too, and can watch them for hours!
But I tremble at the site of a large non-biting spider! On seeing cockroaches in India, I tried to not be bothered by them, but failed miserably – and they were HUGE! Give me a wasp any day!
Wasp Nests In The Loft Or Attic
Another common place to see them, and sometimes an occasional hibernating queen or two, is the loft or attic.
As stated, we have had hibernating wasp queens in the attic (actually – I believe several times), and we found a nest – already abandoned. I am quite protective, and never harm the queens.
Everyone’s situation is different, and indeed, an especially large nest could cause alarm, especially where there are pets and young children.
Seek Assistance If A Nest Is Large And Intolerable – Take Steps To Deter Them In The Future
If you discover a large nest in the attic and find this intolerable, you will have to call for professional help.
Alternatively, you could leave the nest alone and could remove any disused nest at the end of the season – we have left ours in place, it’s in a tricky spot, and anyway, we understand this will deter wasps from building a nest close by in future.
If you are going to remove an old nest yourself, wear protective gloves and clothing to ensure you are not caught out by any left behind wasps. After that, install a Waspinator.
Waspinators work by discouraging wasps from building nests, because wasps are territorial, and tend to avoid nests of other wasps (further information below).
The Eaves Of A House Or Building
If the nest appears on a school, the wasp colony may be finished and gone by the time children return from the summer vacation period. An empty nest may then provide an interesting talking and study opportunity – ensure there are no wasps inside.
On the other hand, the nest may be very active.
Seek assistance as appropriate. You could also consult a local wildlife organisation – are they able to advise you of the species, and whether it will soon be gone anyway?
I also recommend a number of repellents:
There are other products available too:
In the event that you are stung, you might like to try a Venom Extractor Kit – this is obviously something you would need to have as a precaution, and in advance of the stinging event occuring.
How To Remove A Wasp Nest And Deter Them In The Future
Personally, I love wasps, and I am able to tolerate wasps anyway, and I advise against killing wasps, but if circumstances are such that something really must be done, I recommend you should seek help if you urgently need to move a nest.
THEN, I recommend you install a Waspinator (see image). A Waspinator looks like a wasp nest, thus deterring wasps from building a nest nearby, because – as stated earlier, wasps are territorial. You could have a go at making one, but on the other hand, they are not too expensive and should last some time. If you already have the materials, you may as well make one.
You can also use them to take with you on picnics. I do not advise similar products made from paper – they are not durable, and though initially cheaper, probably will not last as long.
You can get a Waspinator from Amazon.
If you are simply bothered by wasps in the garden, remember they are excellent pollinators and pest-controllers – but if you still find them intolerable, then try the repellents mentioned – and see the very practical tips on my page about deterring wasps.
A variety of products are available to help you repel wasps from the garden.