Wasp Life Cycle

Updated: 29th January 2021

Wasps and the wasp life cycle

For me, the wasp life cycle is interesting.  But why digress into the subject of wasps given that this website is about bees?

Bees are descended from sphecoid wasps, and as such, bees and wasps are related.

Along with ants and sawflies, they both belong to the insect order hymenoptera.

Bees can be mistaken for wasps.  Yellow face bees and various nomad bees also look rather wasp-like in appearance.  You can read about differences between bees and wasps here.

a queen wasp foraging on a very pale pink rose flower

There are a number of similarities between some wasp and bee species. Like bees, wasps are pollinators, and like honey bees specifically, social wasps create amazing nest structures.

However, honey bee colonies are ongoing, and new colonies are created by swarming.

In contrast, the wasp life cycle is short, and some wasps have similar life cycles to bumble bee or certain solitary bee species.

This page provides a broad description of the wasp life cycle for social and solitary wasps, but there are differences between species.

Social Wasps

Wasp on pink Astrantia flower, front view

Social Wasp Habitat

Wasps are found in a variety of habitats depending on the species.  The common wasp and German wasp are frequently seen around gardens and parks.

Social Wasp Colonies

Social wasps live in colonies within large nests.  Nests may be underground, or may be aerial and suspended from branches, or even found in the attic/shed or other building structure.  They tend to resemble a paper ball.

Wasps nests are amazing structures.

As with social bees, the colony is founded and dominated by a queen. 

Hibernating, wasp queens emerge during the spring. They will have mated with males the previous year, and are thus fertilized.

After emerging from her winter hibernation, she feeds and seeks a place to create a nest and raise a colony.  Once the first young wasps emerge as adults, they will assist the queen with colony duties, however, the queen must do all the work in the early stages of establishing her colony.

Grey, ball shaped wasp nest attached to a ceiling.Wasp nest attached to a shed ceiling

The queen's first task is to begin building the nests.  The nest above was built from bits of dead wood and plant material which is chewed to form the papery walls. They may also scrape very fine strips of wood for nest making.

If you look very carefully at this image below, you can see faint white, vertical lines where a wasp has been active in scraping fine shavings of wood from this fence panel for building her nest.

A grey faded wooden fence panel with very thin pale scratch marks on each wood plank.  A wasp has been active in scraping fine shavings of wood from this fence panel for building her nest.A wasp has been active in scraping fine shavings of wood from this fence panel for building her nest.

Inside the nest, the queen also builds egg cells, where the eggs are laid and where larvae can develop into worker wasps.

Look closely, and you'll see that a wasp nest is an amazing structure - as with honey bees, the cells are hexagonal shaped.  Wasps are amazing architects.

the inside of a wasp nests containing hexagonal shaped cells constructed from grey papery wood shavings.Wasps are brilliant architects. They build complex nests containing hexagonal shaped cells.

Once sufficient larvae have developed into mature wasps, the queen will no longer forage or engage in general nest duties – all of which will now be left to the workers, and instead, she will devote her time to laying more eggs.

Whilst the wasp queen lays all the eggs, the worker wasps tend to the nest and colony duties, such as tending the eggs and larvae, nest building, foraging for food and defending the nest from attack. 

Eventually, males and new queens will be produced. The queens will leave the nest, mate and hibernate until the following year. Meanwhile, the rest of the colony will die, as is the case with bumble bee colonies.

The old nest will not be re-used, whereas in some cases, bumble bee nests might be used by future generations of bumble bees but only if the site is in suitable condition.

Solitary Wasps

Small black wasp with thin yellow stripes foraging on a purple knapweed flower.Above - A Digger Wasp - an example of a solitary wasp.

As with bees, most wasps are solitary.  

Solitary wasp females emerge from hibernation and are responsible for constructing their nests, laying eggs and providing the larvae with food. Solitary wasps are generally not aggressive, and it is said that they are far less likely to sting.

How long do wasps live?

A queen wasp could live for about 12 months.

A newly emerged queen hibernates and establishes a new colony the following year.  In normal circumstances, she will die at some point after the next generation of queens have been reared and the colony is now in demise.  

Worker wasps on the other hand, live 12 -22 days, and the males have slightly shorter lives.  The new queens are the only members of the colony to survive until the following year.

What good things do wasps do?

Wasps are sometimes thought of as scary insects that go around purposely stinging humans (find out how to repel wasps). However, wasps perform an important function in the eco-system.

The wasp life cycle is such that they are, on balance, beneficial in the garden, since they take young aphids and caterpillars that eat crops in spring, and they also pollinate plants.

Wasp hanging upside down on a raspberry flowerAbove, wasp pollinating raspberries.

Increasingly, farmers are looking to harness wasps to help them to control crop pests.

a parasitoid wasp with quite long antennaeThis parasitoid wasp helps to control farm crop pests.

However, they can also will eat some soft fruits, but there are actions you can take to deter wasps without killing them - remember the colony only lasts a season.

Do wasps attack bees?

Wasps will sometimes attack bee nests, usually hunting invertebrate matter to feed the wasp larvae. 

Bees can usually repel an occasional wasp, but a large number of wasps would be a challenge - but this could only happen later in the season when a wasp colony has at least a good number of active workers.

Beekeepers may use a wasp trap to counter wasps at the beehive.

That said, bees and wasps commonly forage on the same shrub.

Nature is not wasteful, and whilst it is easy to be critical when one creature preys on another, it is important to remember that mankind is not only a predator, humans are also the biggest threat to most creatures due to their activity on the environment, and sometimes shockingly, and wastefully so.

Side view of a wasp queen on a green leaf

The best way to help bees generally is not by destroying wasps, but by filling your garden with plants for bees and cutting out harmful insecticides.  This will go some way to help reduce the impact of habitat loss.

meme explaining that wasps are wonderful

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