European Paper Wasp

- A classic invasive insect species in the US -

Summary: The European paper wasp, Polistes dominula, is a relatively new paper wasp species in North America and has enjoyed a rapid increase in geographical spread in recent years. In some areas it is displacing native paper wasps and becoming a significant nuisance pest.

Jack DeAngelis, PhD
OSU Ext. Entomologist (ret.)

Paper wasps

Paper wasps are closely related to yellowjacket wasps. You can tell them apart because paper wasps generally have significantly longer hind legs which hang below the abdomen in flight. Paper wasps also make smaller nests with an open, cells exposed (see photo below, right), architecture.

Paper wasps normally go about their business pretty much unnoticed. Most native (US) species make relatively small nests and locate them in out-of-the-way places. They are not aggressive so there is little threat of swarming. Paper wasps are excellent predators and unlike some scavenger yellowjackets are not interested in our picnic food.

The European paper wasp is not a typical paper wasp

The European paper wasp is not native to North America. It arrived in the New World sometime before 1981 appearing first in Massachusetts and has since spread westward now occurring as far west as California, Oregon and Washington. Its native range is Europe to China and is the most common paper wasp in Western Europe.

This new wasp makes a larger nest than our native paper wasp species and places these nests in more accessible places. Whereas native paper wasps build nests in high, out-of-the-way sites such as along the eves of a roof, European paper wasps also build nests closer to the ground in areas where we might accidentally make contact. Numerous, hidden nests can increase the likelihood of unpleasant encounters between wasps and gardeners (see below). Finally, this wasp is such a successful colonizer that it sometimes displaces native paper wasp species.

Because it is not native, the European paper wasp has experienced so-called "ecological release" typical of other invasive species that arrive without their own native predators and parasites. This has resulted in a rapid geographical spread and large populations where this wasp occurs.

European paper wasp queen

European paper wasp queen (about the size of a US Lincoln penny). Note yellowjacket-like coloration. Photo by JD DeAngelis.

European paper wasp nest

Open nest structure with exposed cells that is typical of paper wasps. Photo by JD DeAngelis.

Identification & mis-identification

Most people, even some entomologists, still mistakenly identify the European paper wasp as a yellowjacket (Vespula spp.). If you compare the two the European paper wasp is a little larger than a typical yellowjacket, but smaller than our native paper wasps, and has a very similar yellow over black color pattern. The easiest way to tell them apart is like all paper wasps the European paper wasp has long hind legs that seem to "dangle" below the body in flight. European paper wasp workers are also not as aggressive as yellowjacket workers but more aggressive than other paper wasps.

Life history of paper wasps

The life cycle of European paper wasp is typical of other paper wasps and yellowjackets. Queens emerge from overwintering sites in spring to start a new nest. Once underway, queens remain at the nest to lay eggs while workers, sterile females, provision and build the nest.

European paper wasps start nest building a little earlier in spring than our native species which may account, in part, for its relative success. Nests grow throughout the summer, a batch of males, called drones, is produced in the fall. Drones mate with newly produced queens. These new queens are the only members of the colony that survive the winter. Nests normally are not reused the following spring.

European paper wasp nest European paper wasp nest  - close

European paper wasp nest built under a flap of a trashcan liner (left-hand image). Close-up of nest (right-hand image); notice wasp, possibly the queen. Photos by Elizabeth DeAngelis.

Close encounters with paper wasp nests

These photos illustrate why you are more likely to have an unpleasant, painful encounter with the European paper wasp than other paper wasp species. The relatively large nest has been built in an area where unsuspecting hands might go (far left). Other paper wasp species tend to build smaller nests in more out-of-the-way places, less likely to be touched by accident.

While this wasp certainly will sting it is unlikely to swarm thus reducing the overall threat compared to the more aggressive yellowjackets.

Control of paper wasps

Paper wasps are not attracted to artificial wasp traps nor will poison baits likely work because paper wasps require live prey. The only control now is to destroy individual nests as you encounter them with a Wasp & Hornet-type insecticide (see How to Control a Wasp Nest). Be aware, however, that this wasp is a excellent predator of many pest insects so should be left alone if at all possible.

So, while they may be annoying at times they are probably doing your garden and landscape a lot of good! In some areas, however, this wasp may be having a negative impact on rare or endangered butterflies. Eventually, this invasive species will be "found" by some predator and/or parasite and will then begin to decline in numbers.

Update: This year (2015) I think I am starting to see significant nest disturbance in our local (western Oregon) European paper wasps. On several occasions I've found remnants of nests on the ground that appear to have been torn from their moorings. Also, the number of nests that I have encountered this year is way down compared to previous years. If nests are being destroyed by a predator my guess is that birds are doing it but I have no direct evidence so far.

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