Paper wasps are so named because they construct nests made of a papery material, with a single upside-down layer of cells resembling an umbrella. They gather fibers from dead wood and plant stems and mix them with saliva to make a gray/brown papery material with which to construct water-resistant paper nests.
Paper wasps of various species are found throughout North America. There are 22 species of paper wasps in North America and approximately 700 species worldwide.
Paper wasps most often build their nests around homes and other structures, underneath eaves, and on sturdy plants. Paper wasp nests are built from wood fiber and plant matter that the insects chew and form into a comb of hexagonal cells. The cells are exposed and the nest resembles an open umbrella. Mature nests contain up to 200 cells.
Paper wasp queens emerge during the early spring thaw, when temperatures reach into the mid-50 degrees during the day. Since paper wasps build water-resistant nests that are usually in a covered structure, rainy, wet weather does not affect their nests as much as it affects ground-nesting yellowjackets. In fall, freezing temperatures will kill all but the queen paper wasps.
Paper wasps prey on insects such as caterpillars, flies — and beetle larvae that are fed to their young. The wasps forage during the day and rest at night.
Wasps attack when the nest is disturbed and can sting repeatedly. The stings typically cause pain and swelling around the area of the attack. In some cases serious allergic reactions may occur that can even result in death. Only female wasps can sting.
Paper wasps are semi-social insects that live in colonies consisting of three castes: workers, queens and males. Fertilized queens overwinter and in the spring select a site and begin building a nest.
The queen's eggs are laid in cells and hatch into larvae that develop through several stages. Worker wasps assist in nest building, caring for the young and defending the nest. An average nest may contain as many as 20 to 30 adults. In late summer, queens stop laying eggs. The queen's mated female offspring will seek a protected place to overwinter, but the remainder of the colony won't survive the winter.
Paper wasps are 3/4 to 1 inch long, with an extremely narrow abdomen and black wings. Their body color varies by species.