Wasps Use Wood to Construct Paper Homes

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 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:

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

Resources and Further Reading

  • Cranshaw, Whitney, and Richard Redak. Bugs Rule!: an Introduction to the World of Insects. Princeton University, 2013.
  • Gullan, P. J., and P. S. Cranston. The Insects: an Outline of Entomology. 4th ed., Wiley Blackwell, 2010.
  • Jacobs, Steve. “Baldfaced Hornet.” Department of Entomology (Penn State University), Pennsylvania State University, Feb. 2015.
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Hadley, Debbie. "Wasps Use Wood to Construct Paper Homes." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/how-wasps-build-wasp-nests-1968103. Hadley, Debbie. (2023, April 5). Wasps Use Wood to Construct Paper Homes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/how-wasps-build-wasp-nests-1968103 Hadley, Debbie. "Wasps Use Wood to Construct Paper Homes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/how-wasps-build-wasp-nests-1968103 (accessed June 10, 2023).