How Wasps Build Wasp Nests

How Wasps Use Wood To Construct Paper Homes

Paper wasps on a nest.
Paper wasps build their nests by turning wood into paper. Getty Images/Danita Delimont

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 wasp nests suspended underneath eaves and overhangs. Bald-faced hornets construct large, football-shaped nests. Yellowjackets make their nests underground. In general, though, the process of constructing all wasp nests is the same.

How Wasps Turn 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 of the wasp nest begins with a suitable support – a window shutter, a tree branch, or a root in the case of subterranean nests. The queen adds her pulp to 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, they aren't always enough of a safety concern to warrant destroying their nests (unless, of course, a family member has a venom allergy). In many cases, you can leave the nests alone.

Why should you let a colony of stinging wasps live in your yard? Nest-making social wasps are largely beneficial insects. Papers 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.

Problem wasps include:

  • western yellowjackets (Vespula pensylvanica)
  • eastern yellowjackets (Vespula maculifrons)
  • common yellowjackets (Vespula vulgaris)
  • southern yellowjackets (Vespula squamosa)
  • German yellowjackets (Vespula germanica) - introduced to North America

If scavenging yellowjackets are a problem in your yard, then it might be worth taking measures to prevent wasps from establishing nests

Sources:

  • The Insects: An Outline of Entomology, P.J. Gullan and P.S. Cranston, 2008.
  • Bugs Rule! An Introduction to the World of Insects, Whitney Cranshaw and Richard Redak, 2013.
  • Baldface hornet fact sheet, by Steve Jacobs, Sr., Pennsylvania State University Department of Entomology, updated February 2015.