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7-Minute Read

I’m thinking paper probably isn’t the sturdiest material to build an umbrella out of right? Well, that’s why they so often build their homes in sheltered areas around our human houses! Yes, I’m talking about the Paper Wasp, or Ol’ Dangle-legs as my partner likes to call them :)

Paper Wasps, also commonly called Umbrella Paper Wasps, are wasps in the genus Polistes. They are closely related to other wasps like the Yellow Jacket, which are in the same family, Vespidae. They are not Yellow Jackets though. Unlike their often somewhat aggressive relatives, Paper Wasps build their nests above ground and are usually fairly friendly. As long as you don’t actually grab their nest with them in it with your hand…. Yes, I have done this. By accident of course! Counting bagworms back in my undergrad years and not looking where I was putting my hand…. Yeah, I don’t recommend it unless you need a natural hand-numbing agent (after the pain subsides lol). Otherwise though, they are pretty friendly and don’t seem to mind at all when I stick my phone just a few inches away from their nests.

European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula. NOT a Yellow Jacket.

Paper Wasps are wonderful huntresses of caterpillars that may be eating your garden plants as well as other soft-bodied critters they find. Like maybe some of the tons of field crickets that are everywhere here? Its only the females that hunt though. Males can’t sting, as stingers are modified ovipositors (aka egg laying devices coming off their butts), so there’s no way for them to paralyze prey for the baby wasps to eat. The male’s primary purpose is just to help create the next generation, although they can be found drinking nectar from some flowers and may provide a little bit of pollination in the process. Sounds like a pretty good gig to me….

European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula, on parsley flower

As their common name suggests, Paper Wasps build their nests out of a paper-like material. And they do kinda look like upside-down umbrellas. I actually think they look more like those lotus seedpods you can buy at the craft store or the florist…. Since the wasp’s nests are made out of paper, they are super fragile and easily damaged by water. Not the best for an umbrella. That means the wasps need to find nice sheltered areas to build their nests. What better location than under the eaves of human houses where it’s nice and dry? Or under the covered porch? Or inside the perfectly sized light structures all over a folks houses? Or maybe even under an outdoor table? Yeah, we humans make the nicest spots for Paper Wasps to build their nests…

Polistes dominula, building nest under my deck light

At my house pretty much every single sheltered surface has been colonized… All the outdoor light fixtures, multiple places under the eaves, around the garage, the front porch, inside our deck railings, and yes even under one of our outdoor tables. I have had to remove two nests that were right next to the door we use all the time as they kept getting inside the house. Normally I just catch them and release them back outside, but since my partner is allergic, I took pity on him and relocated the nests away from the door. I like them, but he is understandably not a fan. I may need to move additional nests if the lights ever burn out, but until the lights need replacing I think they should be fine to stay…

Polistes dominula nest under my deck light

If you do need to relocate a nest, like if it’s right above a door you use all the time, it’s best to wait until after dark. Paper Wasps are excellent daytime huntresses, but they sleep at night and are easily confused in the dark when they can’t see as well. Use a knife or something sharp to sever the nest’s attachment point to the house or other structure – they are usually stuck on there really well. Try not to touch the main part of the nest, or comb holes, as that’s the fragile part and where the babies are. You should probably wear thick gloves too… Put the dislocated nest somewhere sheltered, nearby but not in the way, and the wasps will find it again. If nothing furry eats it – which is often part of the natural cycle….

Polistes dominula nest under table next to door

The wasps at my house are so docile, that I actually removed the one nest during the day. Just carefully slid the shovel under the nest base, and then carried it away from the door. I felt so bad for the wasps though. They were super confused about their nest moving and kept searching the area it used to be for most of the day until they found its new location. They watched me do it, and flew around me a little checking me out, but not a one tried to sting me. Yeah, I definitely felt like a bit of a monster… Had to keep reminding myself: allergic human in the house… Human more important than wasp…. Lots more wasps everywhere else on the house… Human more important than wasp…. Nope, still felt bad.

Under the table Polistes coming to check me out as I move their nest

It appears I have three different species of Paper Wasp living around my house, Polistes metricus (the Metric Paper Wasp), Polistes fuscatus (the Northern Paper Wasp), and an introduced species Polistes dominula (the European Paper Wasp). I felt a little better when I identified the nests I had to remove as those of the introduced species, the European Paper Wasp… I have more to say about all these Paper Wasp species living around my house, but as this story has already gotten a bit long, they will have to wait for another article 😄

Polistes nest with babies carefully removed & ready to relocate

Want to read more about Paper Wasps now? Check out these resources:

Native Metric Paper Wasp, Polistes metricus
Native Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus

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Written by an entomologist for the enjoyment of all... The goal is to post 1 new story every week or so. Stay tuned!