Northern Paper Wasp

2009 April 4

We regularly find these wasps building nests like this one in a bunch of places, generally anywhere that they are protected from the rain and wind. They are usually in my father-in-law’s hunting blind out back, they really like the old carriage-house, they are fond of the little enclosure that I keep beekeeping supplies in, and they really, really like the inside of the metal cover over the filling port on our propane tank[1].


The most likely candidate is the Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus, although this one doesn’t have the orangeish patches on the sides of the abdomen that most of the pictures on BugGuide have. There’s apparently some variation in color, though, and sometimes they are nearly black.


I caught her in mid-August of 2007, and now I don’t remember exactly where. She was probably in the house, because they are easier to catch on windows than they are out in the wild, and wasps do get into the house fairly regularly [2].


The eyes have an interesting pattern, they almost look like polished wood.


I managed to get a shot of her grooming her front leg. She did this by drawing it back through her mandibles, like so:


After a while, she started to get a touch annoyed with me, pointing her abdomen at the camera and poking out the sting just a little bit:


They’re actually pretty mild-mannered as wasps go[3], unlike the european paper wasps that would just as soon come after you as look at you. For a while, I thought that the european paper wasps were going to displace the northern paper wasps around here, but last year the population of european paper wasps crashed, allowing the native species to spring back. I don’t know if it was disease, or if it was enough cooler last summer than usual that it gave the advantage to the more cold-tolerant northern paper wasps.

Anyway, they are generally useful to have around, because they like to eat things like caterpillars. I read that they squeeze out the juice from their prey to feed to their younger grubs, and then feed the solid bits to the older grubs.

Like other paper wasps, they overwinter as individual queens that hibernate. Each queen then starts a fresh nest in the spring, and the successful ones found a colony that ultimately makes a new batch of queens in the fall, who mate with the males and then go hibernate, while the males and the non-queen workers die off.
[1] Luckily, we’ve never had to have our tank filled anytime over the summer, so the propane delivery man doesn’t have to deal with a faceful of wasps when he opens the cover.

[2] I normally take a “live and let live” approach to wasps in the house. Back when I lived by myself in an apartment in town, I used to get rather large influxes of them inside every fall when they were looking for places to hibernate, and then again in the spring when they were looking for places to build nests. They liked to nest under the eaves of the apartment house. Sometimes there’d be as many as a dozen flying around the place, but they never stung me and only occasionally landed on me. I’d usually clear them out if I was expecting visitors who would be concerned about them, though. When it was necessary to dispatch wasps, the most effective way I found was to just slowly move up on them with a pair of scissors, and then quickly snip them in half. This has significant advantages over, say, trying to swat them with a rolled-up newspaper. First of all, if you miss completely, they generally don’t even notice you. A solid cut is a clean kill – the two halves are completely incapacitated, the stinger is removed from the part that wants to sting you, and then you can quickly crush the head end with no fuss and no danger. And a non-fatal cut usually results in the removal of a wing, so that she can’t fly up and sting you, and is immobilized for the final cut. Finally, the scissors can easily reach into corners and crevices around the windows. In contrast, a swatter (a) can’t reach into crevices; (b) makes them really, really mad if you just wound or scare the wasp with it; and (c) doesn’t reliably kill the wasp, and so is actually quite inhumane in comparison.

[3] They don’t even sting me when I mess (cautiously) with their nests[4]. The last time a northern paper wasp stung me, I was riding my bicycle (a recumbent, which means that my feet point forwards rather than down, and wind blows up my pantleg as I travel). And, wouldn’t you know it, a wasp flew up my pantleg. I kept feeling this stabbing sensation around my shins, and didn’t know what it was until I stopped and this wasp flew out. It didn’t actually hurt very much.

[4] Once, when I was still in high school, I was clearing out a paper wasp nest for my mother (she goes into anaphylactic shock when she gets stung, so we really couldn’t tolerate even the more mild-mannered wasps around the house). A friend was watching me do it, he was standing about twenty feet away. And wouldn’t you know it, the wasps ignored me, and flew off and stung him. He was not amused. I was, though.

10 Responses
  1. April 4, 2009

    They’ve been nesting all around our house … down in Florida, or at least something like them.

  2. April 4, 2009

    These guys are everywhere in my yard each summer. They try and build nests in at least 10 different spots. They also very clearly ‘strip’ little pieces of wood from my old fence.

  3. April 4, 2009

    Great photos, by the way.

  4. Michele permalink
    June 23, 2009

    I bought an old house (3 season summer cottage) and there were wasps building nests in the attic. I walked quietly around them and did nothing to anger them the first year. All through the year and winter my friends had helpful ‘scare them off’ ideas including knitting a nest since they are territorial (!! yup, there are knitting patterns online for this). Come spring I went up to the attic and brushed off old nests. So far this year, none have moved in. I don’t know if they decided my presence was bad for their young (maybe they feared I was a bad influence? they found a better neighbourhood, better schools etc *just being silly* 😉 but it seems they have moved away. I am relieved, I need to renovate this year and I did not want to kill any of them, but the contractors would not have appreciated them flying around their heads. None of them tried to sting me. I always gave them as wide a berth as I could when I was in the attic. It is a small place though, so I would have been “near” enough for any defending mother to want me OUT and be justified in stinging me, no matter the creature. They were incredibly nice. Especially considering they were there first!

    Now that they are gone… I suddenly have HUGE ants living in the attic (weird) I read some things on the net that make me think the two are related. Wasps kill ants because ants eat their young. Maybe the wasps were keeping the ant population down, or the ants killed off too many wasps.

    Anyway, thank you for your post, it makes me feel better to know more about them.

  5. December 7, 2009

    those are good i liked them.!!!!

  6. June 29, 2011

    Wasps are truly amazing insects and the pictures illustrate that, great post.

  7. June 30, 2011

    Thanks. Incidentally, I have another posting with some additional pictures of these wasps, including a nest and one of the males:

  8. Gary permalink
    July 22, 2012

    Paper wasps are generally more tolerant of human activities than other social wasps like
    yellow jackets. Polistes fuscatus must have a hundred or more variations. I’ve seen 9 or 10
    in Illinois. If I were a taxonomist I’d make them all seperate species. Instead of having
    the northern paper wasp covering every paper wasp in the northern states you would have
    many species. I’ve seen other paper wasps here in the Chicago region that look nothing
    like the fuscatus forms. The colors include: silver, red, red brown, tan, black and tan,
    black, black and white, orange, orange and black, brown, green, yellow, black and yellow,
    brown and yellow, and many others. Many of these are in prairies. I know they are paper
    wasp species because I have observed them.

  9. Mary Kuss permalink
    June 1, 2013

    I have a paper wasp nest over my garage door. It’s round and about the size of a tennis ball. It’s open at the end, and I can see the black and white wasps working around the cells inside. They are very peaceful and tolerant of me opening and closing the garage door. It doesn’t look to me like they are enlarging the nest. I know that bald faced hornets make a paper nest the size of a football. Can anyone tell me the likelihood of this nest getting that large?

  10. June 2, 2013


    Black and White sounds like bald-faced hornets, especially if they are also quite large. The nests are small this time of year, but they inflate tremendously as more of the worker wasps emerge. They tend to be relatively peaceable when the nest is small, but get aggressive when large. I’d normally favor a “live and let live” approach, but since they are in an area where you need to go regularly, I’d recommend getting rid of them now when it is relatively easy.

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