Wasps and Hornets

Wasps are an important part of our environment because they control other insects, using them as their food source. There are about 13,000 species. They are social insects like bees, ants, and termites, which means they cooperate with the care of their young, live in multigenerational colonies, and have a system of those who reproduce and those who do not (often called workers or soldiers).

There are three different types of wasp: (1) parasitic, which lay their eggs on a host insect which the larvae then use as food; (2) hunting , which bring their prey back to the nest; and (3) social, often called paper wasps because they construct nests out of plant fiber and saliva.

Female paper wasps can initiate colonies by themselves, take over abandon nests of another female and raise the orphans, or cooperate with another female and make a larger nest. This colony founding happens in spring, but if there are not enough insects to feed on, the foraging females die.

Yellow jackets are the paper wasp which most people recognize as they hover around picnic sites and get onto open cans of soda. They are aggressive, especially in August and September when they are defending their nests. These nests may be in trees but are often under eaves on porches. Their sting is very painful.

Hornets are the largest of the paper wasps. There has been a lot of hype lately about the murder hornet. This paper wasp is indeed large, being two inches long. Their sting is not so much a threat to humans; killing fewer than bees, wasps, and other hornets combined Their real danger is attacking honey bees’ nests. Bees are already under siege.

New Mexico’s state insect is a hunting wasp called the Tarantula Hawk Wasp. This wasp stings the tarantula, drags the spider back to its home, and then lays its eggs on it. The larvae use the spider as their food source as they mature. This wasp rarely stings people, but if it does, its sting is described on the Insect Sting Scale as one of the most painful: “excruciating and unrelenting sting and it shuts down one’s ability to do anything but scream.” Fortunately, this intensity lasts only about five minutes. Interestingly, this wasp’s main predator is the Roadrunner, New Mexico’s state bird!

If stung by a wasp (or bee), apply a cold compress for 15-20 minutes and take an over-the-counter antihistamine like Benadryl. Vinegar will decrease the pain in the area of the sting.