There are more than 100,000 different species of wasps in the world. Luckily, we only have a few of them in the Athens, Georgia area. The ones mentioned on this page are a few of the ones we encounter most often in our region.
Wasps and bees are distance cousins, but they're not the same insects. One of the things that makes wasps different from bees is that bees make honey, but wasps don't. Bees are also much more important as pollinators, although many wasps pollinate, as well. Nonetheless, a lot of folks refer to all stinging insects as "bees," which greatly insults and annoys the real bees. So for the record, most stinging insects in Georgia are wasps, not bees. Hornets and yellow jackets, for example, are wasp species, not bee species.
Wasp species vary quite a bit in terms of their their habits, life cycle, biology, and aggressiveness. Some wasps are relatively mellow, like most of the paper wasps and mud daubers. Unless you bother them, they'll most likely leave you alone. Other wasps, like yellow jackets and hornets, are much quicker to attack and do so much more aggressively. Hornets are the most aggressive wasps of all in our area and will sometimes attack people who are as far as 20 feet away if they feel in the least-bit threatened threatened. When hornets attack, it's all-out warfare.
What this means from a practical standpoint is that unless you're absolutely certain what kind of wasps you're dealing with and how aggressive they are, you really shouldn't attempt to take care of a wasp problem yourself. Seriously. You may very well get stung; and if the wasps happen to be one of the really ornery species like yellow jackets or hornets, you may get stung multiple times. They can put a real hurting on you. So be safe. Call us instead.
Lets take a look at some of the wasps most commonly found in Athens and throughout Georgia.
Baldfaced hornets are among the most aggressive wasps in the world. It's often said that they'll attack if you even look at them funny, and that's not far from the truth. Hornets post two or three "sentries" outside their nests whose job it is to fly around and keep an eye out for attackers. When they see something that they don't like, they call to the rest of the nest, and the attack begins.
The problem is that different hornets have different ideas as to what constitutes a threat. Some are more skittish than others. So it's perfectly possible for you to walk past the same hornets' nest every day and be ignored, but then get attacked when walking past it on another day. If a sentry calls out the troops, the troops will respond, regardless of who's doing sentry duty that day.
Baldfaced hornets are stocky in shape, predominantly black, and have white or light yellow markings. They build exposed, oblong-shaped nests out of paper, with entry holes toward the bottom, usually suspended from tree branches, ceilings, or power lines. They may also build nests in void areas like attics, but they seem to prefer building then outdoors. Maybe they like the view better.
When hornets attack, they do so as a group, with hundreds or thousands of wasps taking part in the attack. Their stings are very painful, and if you get stung by enough of them, they can cause a serious reaction -- even if you're not especially allergic to insect stings. If you get stung by hornets and suffer more than localized pain and swelling around the stings, seek medical attention immediately.
European hornets are larger wasps than their baldfaced hornet cousins and have beautifully-colored, burnt orange bodies with black and yellow markings. They also have a very loud, distinctive, frightening buzz that they use to scare away predators.
European hornets usually build their nests in void areas like hollow trees, wall voids, roof soffits, abandoned cars, or other secluded areas; so when you're outside, you're much more likely to come across the insects themselves than their nests. You can tell when you're getting close, however, because the nests have a very strong, distinctive, and unpleasant odor. When they build a nest in a house, the odor inside the home can get strong enough to be unbearable.
Despite their large size, intimidating buzz, and foul smell, European hornets are somewhat less aggressive than baldfaced hornets. Maybe it's true that Europeans are more refined than we are. But don't sell them short: When European hornets do attack, they do so with gusto. They attack in great numbers, and their stings are intensely painful.
There are many different wasps that are commonly called "yellow jackets," some of which are quite aggressive. The ones we get in Georgia are usually various species in the genus Vespula and are collectively known as "vespids." The one in the picture on the right is also known as the European wasp or the German yellow jacket, Vespula germanica.
Yellow jackets build paper nests that are usually round if exposed, but conform to the shape of the void when they're built in enclosed places. The nests can range in size from a few inches to several feet in diameter. In nature, they build their nests in hollow trees and other void areas, or sometimes in the ground. They can also be found in rock walls, old cars, and abandoned animal burrows. In homes, they usually build their nests in wall or ceiling voids, attics, or soffits.
Yellow jackets range from moderately to highly aggressive. They're less likely to attack you just for looking at them funny like hornets do, but they won't hesitate to attack you if you get too close to their nest or do something else that they perceive to be a threat. To further complicate matters, they don't always build their nests right near their visible entry holes. You may see the wasps going into a hole, but their nest might be 10 or 15 feet away inside the void.
As a general rule, if you see yellow jackets going into and coming out of a hole in a building, rock wall, electrical box, or anything else in which they may have built a nest, be careful in that area. And call us.
The term "paper wasp" is a generic one that refers to any wasps (except hornets or yellow jackets) that build nests out of paper that they make themselves by chewing wood. Most of the time, they build open nests, meaning that there's no covering of paper around them. You can look right into the cells of the nest. They tend to build their nests in exposed areas that are shielded from rain on the top, such as under soffits and awnings or on window frames.
Most paper wasps are solitary, some are fully social, and some are loosely social. Most species are more neighborly than truly social because they don't actually have any strict rules about division of labor; but they will build nests nearby each other, occasionally share a nest, and even baby-sit each others' young. But it's a more haphazard arrangement than one would find with true social wasps like hornets or yellow jackets. Some species, however, are fully social with castes, divisions of labor, and a queen.
Most paper wasps are not very aggressive, but they will defend themselves if they feel threatened. A few species, however, are very territorial and will defend their homes aggressively. Unless you know the temperament of the wasps you're dealing with, it's best to keep your distance.
Cicada killers (sometimes called "lawn wasps") are very interesting insects. Their coloration is similar to that of a yellow jacket, but they're much bigger than yellow jackets and build nests only in burrows that they excavate in the soil.
Female cicada killers catch and paralyze cicadas, drag them into the underground burrows, and lay eggs on the cicadas. In the case of male eggs, a single egg is laid on a single cicada and sealed into a cell. Female eggs, however, are sealed into a cell with several cicadas because female cicada killers are larger and need more food to grow and develop. Within a few days, the eggs hatch, and the larvae start eating the cicadas. It's pretty gruesome.
Many people are terrified of cicada killers because of their large size, loud buzz and aggressive flight. The males fly quite aggressively and engage other male cicada killers in what looks like mortal combat to defend their territories. But the males completely lack stingers and are unable to do harm to humans. Female cicada killers have stingers, but they seldom sting unless you physically assault them in some way (by stepping on them, swatting them, etc.). The females' stingers and venom are adapted to paralyzing cicadas, not defense.
Cicada killers are disliked mainly because of the damage they do to lawns and their aggressive, frightening flight habits. The holes they make are rather large and quite noticeable, and they tend to dig a lot of them. It's not uncommon to come across lawns with hundreds of cicada killer holes.
Digger bees are true bees (as opposed to wasps) that make their nests in the ground. They're relatively passive and rarely sting, but they can do extensive damage to lawns.
Because they can be present in very large numbers, digger bees can be very intimidating. They are not very aggressive, but they will sting if they're threatened.
Stinging Insect Gallery
Here are some pictures of wasp, hornet, and other stinging insect work we've done in and around the Athens area.