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 Yellowjacket Wasp Names

- Different names for these social insects -

Summary: In the US the term yellowjacket refers to a group of social wasps that build large nests both above ground (aerial nests) or below ground (ground nests). Common names, in addition to yellowjacket, include ground bees, garbage bees, and hornets.

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

Wasp is a general term for any one of thousands of species of predatory and parasitic Hymenoptera, which includes wasps, ants, and bees. There are tiny parasitic wasps no larger than a gnat, solitary thread-waisted wasps [picture] and social wasps with colonies that rival bee hives in complexity. A yellowjacket is a particular type of social wasp in one, or a few, specific wasp genera such as the genus Vespula (see Yellowjacket Wasps).

Common names tend to vary somewhat by region and can be very confusing. For example, there is a wasp called the "baldfaced hornet" [picture] that actually belongs to one of the genera that in the US we call yellowjackets (Vespula and Dolichovespula). We should probably call this insect the "baldfaced yellowjacket". True "hornets", on the other hand, are in the genus Vespa. Confused? It actually gets worse...!

male yellowjacket wasp

A typical yellowjacket, or social wasp. Common names include yellow jackets, bees, hornets, ground hornets, and garbage bees.

In some countries the term yellowjacket is not used at all and is mostly replaced by the phrase "social vespids" or "social wasps" or simply "wasps". The phrase, social wasps, refers to all those wasps that build large, complex colonies in which there is a queen, workers and a division of labor.


Problem yellowjackets

In the US, the term yellowjacket generally refers to social wasps in the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula. While most species of yellowjackets go unnoticed, a few get our attention because they are potentially dangerous pests. Problems arise when the wasps seek to share our picnic food or, more importantly, sting us when they see us as a threat to the colony.

Two closely related species, Vespula vulgaris (common yellowjacket) and Vespula germanica (European or German yellowjacket) [picture], are probably the most frequently encountered "problem" yellowjackets worldwide. Western North America has an additional species, Vespula pensylvanica or the western yellowjacket. All these species build mostly underground nests and have adopted a scavenger habit which brings them into conflict with people (see Why are Scavenger Yellowjackets More Dangerous?).


Other common wasp names

There are other names used to describe what the social wasps do such as "garbage bees" and "ground bees". Yellowjacket wasps that have adopted the scavenger habit often forage around garbage cans looking for food, hence the name "garbage bees". Likewise, many scavenger colonies build their nests below ground, hence the name "ground bees". The term hornet is often used interchangeably with yellowjacket but experts reserve the term for a few particular wasps, only one of which occurs in the US. Finally, the term "bee" should only be used for another group of non-predatory, pollen-collecting Hymenoptera, the true bees, such as honey bees, carpenter bees, and bumble bees.

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