There are six species of social wasp that are native to Britain and this is a good time of year to identify them.
Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) – 2 cm long, with bright yellow and black banded abdomen, with an waist between the thorax and abdomen. They have two pairs of wings and long, robust antennae. The queens are larger than workers
Red wasp (Vespula rufa) usually has red/brown markings on the first and second abdominal segments coupled with the pattern of black markings and these are diagnostic of the species.
Image by Kjetil Fjellheim [CC BY 2.0]
German wasp (Vespula germanica) Very like the Common Wasp, but slightly bigger. There are usually three black spots on the face and the antennae are black right down at the base. The thoracic stripes usually bulge in the middle and there are four yellow spots at the rear of the thorax.
Iamage by Gail Hampshire (CC BY 2.0)
European hornet (Vespa velutina) Size 25 to 35 mm – Britain’s largest social wasp. Queens are larger than the males and workers The thorax area is brownand it has alternating bright orange-yellow and brownish-black stripes along the abdomen.
Image by Rushall Canal
The tree wasp (Dolichovespula sylvestris) Length 22 mm. The face of this species is usually clear yellow with one dot. Antennae yellow right at the base. Thorax with hairs at the sides and two yellow spots at the rear.
Image by Gail Hampshire [CC BY 2.0}
Paper wasp (Polistes nimpha) The colours are very distinct and the abdominal bands do not taper at their sides.
Image by Hectonichus [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Header Image: Vespula vulgaris by JL Boyer [CC BY 4.0]
Like many people I tend to think of wasps as pests. They are often in fruit such as plums, at picking time and I had the unfortunate experience of swallowing one that had landed in my beer glass when I was in France many years ago.
There must be a plus side to them. Nature has this habit of somehow making most species useful. Perhaps someone would like to set the positives out for us?
Social wasps are predators. They hunt many pest species: caterpillars, flies and the sort of creatures that burrow holes in your apples. Adult wasps can only feed on liquid sugars so they don’t eat their prey, they take it back to feed to the nest’s larvae. The larvae reward the adults by excreting the honeydew that forms a major part of their diet. When the old queen stops laying eggs and there are no more larvae and therefore no more honeydew, the adults go hungry and this is when they invade your picnic.