Common Aerial Yellowjacket

Learn About Common Aerial Yellowjacket


A wasp is any insect of the narrow-waisted suborder Apocrita of the order Hymenoptera which is neither a bee nor an ant; this excludes the broad-waisted sawflies (Symphyta), which look somewhat like wasps but are in a separate suborder. The wasps do not constitute a clade, a complete natural group with a single ancestor, as their common ancestor is shared by bees and ants. Many wasps, those in the clade Aculeata, can sting their insect prey.

The most commonly known wasps, such as yellowjackets and hornets, are in the family Vespidae and are eusocial, living together in a nest with an egg-laying queen and non-reproducing workers. Eusociality is favoured by the unusual haplodiploid system of sex determination in Hymenoptera, as it makes sisters exceptionally closely related to each other. However, the majority of wasp species are solitary, with each adult female living and breeding independently. Females typically have an ovipositor for laying eggs in or near a food source for the larvae, though in the Aculeata the ovipositor is often modified instead into a sting used for defense or prey capture. Wasps play many ecological roles. Some are predators or pollinators, whether to feed themselves or to provision their nests. Many, notably the cuckoo wasps, are kleptoparasites, laying eggs in the nests of other wasps. Many of the solitary wasps are parasitoidal, meaning they lay eggs on or in other insects (any life stage from egg to adult) and often provision their own nests with such hosts. Unlike true parasites, the wasp larvae eventually kill their hosts. Solitary wasps parasitize almost every pest insect, making wasps valuable in horticulture for biological pest control of species such as whitefly in tomatoes and other crops.

Social Behavior

Of the dozens of extant wasp families, only the family Vespidae contains social species, primarily in the subfamilies Vespinae and Polistinae. With their powerful stings and conspicuous warning coloration, often in black and yellow, social wasps are frequent models for Batesian mimicry by non-stinging insects, and are themselves involved in mutually beneficial Müllerian mimicry of other distasteful insects including bees and other wasps. All species of social wasps construct their nests using some form of plant fiber (mostly wood pulp) as the primary material, though this can be supplemented with mud, plant secretions (e.g., resin), and secretions from the wasps themselves; multiple fibrous brood cells are constructed, arranged in a honeycombed pattern, and often surrounded by a larger protective envelope. Wood fibres are gathered from weathered wood, softened by chewing and mixing with saliva. The placement of nests varies from group to group; yellow jackets such as Dolichovespula media and D. sylvestris prefer to nest in trees and shrubs; Protopolybia exigua attaches its nests on the underside of leaves and branches; Polistes erythrocephalus chooses sites close to a water source.[22]

Other wasps, like Agelaia multipicta and Vespula germanica, like to nest in cavities that include holes in the ground, spaces under homes, wall cavities or in lofts. While most species of wasps have nests with multiple combs, some species, such as Apoica flavissima, only have one comb.[23] The length of the reproductive cycle depends on latitude; Polistes erythrocephalus, for example, has a much longer (up to 3 months longer) cycle in temperate regions.[24]


Like all insects, wasps have a hard exoskeleton which protects their three main body parts, the head, the mesosoma (including the thorax and the first segment of the abdomen) and the metasoma. There is a narrow waist, the petiole, joining the first and second segments of the abdomen. The two pairs of membranous wings are held together by small hooks and the forewings are larger than the hind ones; in some species, the females have no wings. In females there is usually a rigid ovipositor which may be modified for injecting venom, piercing or sawing.[28] It either extends freely or can be retracted, and may be developed into a stinger for both defence and for paralysing prey.[29]

In addition to their large compound eyes, wasps have several simple eyes known as ocelli, which are typically arranged in a triangle just forward of the vertex of the head. Wasps possess mandibles adapted for biting and cutting, like those of many other insects, such as grasshoppers, but their other mouthparts are formed into a suctorial proboscis, which enables them to drink nectar.[30]

The larvae of wasps resemble maggots, and are adapted for life in a protected environment; this may be the body of a host organism or a cell in a nest, where the larva either eats the provisions left for it or, in social species, is fed by the adults. Such larvae have soft bodies with no limbs, and have a blind gut (presumably so that they do not foul their cell).[31]


Adult solitary wasps mainly feed on nectar, but the majority of their time is taken up by foraging for food for their carnivorous young, mostly insects or spiders. Apart from providing food for their larval offspring, no maternal care is given.[25] Some wasp species provide food for the young repeatedly during their development (progressive provisioning).[32] Others, such as potter wasps (Eumeninae)[33] and sand wasps (Ammophila, Sphecidae),[34] repeatedly build nests which they stock with a supply of immobilised prey such as one large caterpillar, laying a single egg in or on its body, and then sealing up the entrance (mass provisioning).[35]

Predatory and parasitoidal wasps subdue their prey by stinging it. They hunt a wide variety of prey, mainly other insects (including other Hymenoptera), both larvae and adults.[25] The Pompilidae specialize in catching spiders to provision their nests.[36]

Some social wasps are omnivorous, feeding on fallen fruit, nectar, and carrion such as dead insects. Adult male wasps sometimes visit flowers to obtain nectar. Some wasps, such as Polistes fuscatus, commonly return to locations where they previously found prey to forage.[37] In many social species, the larvae exude copious amounts of salivary secretions that are avidly consumed by the adults. These include both sugars and amino acids, and may provide essential protein-building nutrients that are otherwise unavailable to the adults (who cannot digest proteins).[38]

Sex Determinations

In wasps, as in other Hymenoptera, sex is determined by a haplodiploid system, which means that females are unusually closely related to their sisters, enabling kin selection to favour the evolution of eusocial behaviour. Females are diploid, meaning that they have 2n chromosomes and develop from fertilized eggs. Males, called drones, have a haploid (n) number of chromosomes and develop from an unfertilized egg.[29] Wasps store sperm inside their body and control its release for each individual egg as it is laid; if a female wishes to produce a male egg, she simply lays the egg without fertilizing it. Therefore, under most conditions in most species, wasps have complete voluntary control over the sex of their offspring.[25] Experimental infection of Muscidifurax uniraptor with the bacterium Wolbachia induced thelytokous reproduction and an inability to produce fertile, viable male offspring.[39]

As Polinators

While the vast majority of wasps play no role in pollination, a few species can effectively transport pollen and pollinate several plant species.[42] Since wasps generally do not have a fur-like covering of soft hairs and a special body part for pollen storage (pollen basket) as some bees do, pollen does not stick to them well.[43] However it has been shown that even without hairs, several wasp species are able to effectively transport pollen, therefore contributing for potential pollination of several plant species.[44]

Pollen wasps in the subfamily Masarinae gather nectar and pollen in a crop inside their bodies, rather than on body hairs like bees, and pollinate flowers of Penstemon and the water leaf family, Hydrophyllaceae.[45]

The Agaonidae (fig wasps) are the only pollinators of nearly 1000 species of figs,[43] and thus are crucial to the survival of their host plants. Since the wasps are equally dependent on their fig trees for survival, the coevolved relationship is fully mutualistic.[46]