Updated: 9th October 2010
It's true that wasp nests are not usually welcomed by humans, but it has to be said that on balance, wasps are very beneficial insects both as pollinators (whose role is probably not fully understood), and as natural 'pest control', because they can help keep down populations of crop eating ‘pests’. Even some farmers are harnessing the humble wasp for this very purpose - you can read about this here.
In fact, as with bees, there are actually thousands of wasp species, and most are solitary and are pretty harmless. In the garden, they are largely helpful, although you may think otherwise if you have lots of them feeding from the ripe plums from your plum tree.
No doubt, the type of wasp people are mostly concerned about, are the black and yellow social wasps, which may be attracted to sweet, sugary drinks, and can form large colonies.
But anyway, here's more information about wasp nests, and if you are worried about nests and wasps in your garden, then there are ways you can deter them from building a nest where they are not wanted, as I'll explain below.
A wasp nest, depending on the species and number of wasps, can be a fantastic structure - truly architectural masterpieces to rival the honeycombs made by honey bees!
What do wasp nests look like and how do you know whether you have a wasp nest?
Of those wasps that build their own nests, the size of the structure and materials used may vary depending on factors such as:
In addition, nests could occur in the ground (typically referred to as 'yellow jackets'), or can be seen hanging from tree branches, eaves of buildings (paper wasps), or other supports as aerial nests, again depending on species.
Aerial wasp nests are typically greyish, greyish-green, or straw coloured in appearance.
This nest below was made by a social wasp species and was 'lodged' inside a shrub. The picture was taken in the UK. As you can see, this nest has a papery appearance, as if there are leaves of grey paper stuck together in an overlapping fashion to form a kind of spherical ball shape.
Below is another nest, much smoother in appearance. This was constructed by a solitary wasp species, and was discovered in our attic.
Funnily enough, we didn't even notice it until after the season had well finished! They had not caused any trouble. However, I had previously found a few sleepy, overwintering wasp queens in the folds of an old sleeping bag. I didn't do anything about the wasps - I simply left them alone. We genuinely were not bothered by the wasps, and being a solitary species, only a few wasps would ever emerge.
Wasp colonies only last a season. As with bumble bees, only the queens survive to establish future colonies and the rest of the colony dies. In warm weather, and maybe in different geographical regions, a colony may thrive longer.
Nests are only used once. Indeed, it is for this reason that if you wish to deter wasps building a nest in the same place the following year, it is advisable to leave at least part of the nest structure in place once the nest has been abandoned.
The reason for this is that wasps are territorial and typically avoid founding new colonies close to other nests. In actual fact, some wasp deterrents use this principle to advantage, by creating a 'dummy' nest to dissuade queens from starting colonies nearby. You can read more about this below.
Wasps are magnificent architects! Truly!
These photographs below show a little of the inside of the social wasp nest pictured above.
You can see the structure is composed of neat, hexagonal shaped cells in which the young are reared. The hexagonal cell structure is a super efficient way to use space and fit compartments together, whilst using the minimum amount of materials (and hence resources). Indeed, this hexagonal structure is of course used by honey bees too!
The cells are constructed by using thin scrapings of wood the wasps have gathered from fencing, logs, garden furniture etc. The wasp mixes the fine scrapings of wood with the saliva in her mouth. This breaks down the fibres into a pulp which are then used for constructing the cells. It's a little like the craft of paper making! You can read more about the structure and building of paper wasp nests, along with more images here.
Given that some wasps gather fine shavings of wood with which to build their nests, you may see tell tale signs of wasp activity in the form of tiny scratches on wooden fences and garden furniture as below.
Seeing these markings could indicate there is or has been a wasp nest nearby.
Last year, wasps here were collecting material from our garden fencing (above). They were using it to construct a nest in ivy growing up an old tree in our neighbour's garden. Our neighbours had sold the house and had already moved out.
Unfortunately, I was unable to get myself into a position to be able to take a photograph of the wasp nest. The new neighbours removed the old nest before I had the opportunity to see it. A disappointment for me!
As stated, a nest may be in the ground - or in a compost heap, for that matter, or cavity in a building or other structure - this is the preferred kind of location for a yellow-jacket type wasp - for example Vespa germanica.
When building aerial nests, paper wasps commonly build their nests in trees, hanging from tree branches or the eaves of buildings.
I received a wonderful email and photograph from Kellie in Canada, of a lovely paper wasp nest:
I'm so glad Kellie found the information on this website helpful. I genuinely believe that a lot of the beliefs we have about such things (like wasps) are handed down and taken for granted. When we try and take a step back and be open to the idea that things might be different, we can get a pleasant surprise!
However, if you wish to prevent wasps building nests in such locations, you can do so without killing them. I recommend using a Waspinator - they are not too expensive, and further information is provided below. I especially recommend installing a Waspinator around schools and public buildings.
Other deterrents are also detailed below.
A cavity could be underground, in a building, or even....inside a barbecue, as was the case here. Such nests typically belong to the yellow jacket kind. I'm very grateful to Deborah Hammond from the USA, for sending me these pictures of the nest inside her barbecue.
I'm grateful to Deborah for allowing me to use these images.....
"They particularly loved my red dahlias. I worked in the garden all summer and was not bothered. It made my visitors nervous, but I agree with you about simply maintaining calm...…"
".......Wait, I did get stung once when I wrapped my hand around a tool handle, not realizing there was a wasp on it. Hurt like a mama!"
Ouch! I'm impressed that Deborah remained so tolerant of the wasps after this accident, and didn't mind putting her hand close to the abandoned nest later - the image below helps provide an idea of the size of the nest.
Deborah took fantastic photographs, and I especially like the one below - a close up photograph of those amazing nest cells.
Nests are commonly found in sheds and garages, and
this photograph below provides a clear image of a nice smooth looking wasp nest in
its entirety, that was found in a shed.
Another favourite place is the chimney – my sister had
such a scenario - it was the 'yellow jacket' type. She asked me what I thought she should do.
Taking into account that the nest was basically paper, and could be a potential fire hazard, I advised her against lighting a fire in order to 'smoke the wasps out'. Anyway, this could have backfired and made the wasps very angry!
In my sister's case, fortunately, she did not use that particular room (where the fire place was located) very often, and it being a warm summer, she did not need to light the fire. She simply kept the door closed to keep the wasps out of the rest of the house.
Later in the year, when the wasps were no longer active, she removed the nest from the chimney, and got the vacuum cleaner out to clear away any dead wasps left behind in the room.
I received a wonderful email from a lady in Somerset, England, UK.
In fact, she sent me 2 great images - and a further image when the wasps had left the nest, which I am pleased to share further with visitors to this page - really interesting, because you can see how the layers have been created, and how this opportunistic wasp appears to have made good use of the bird box, much as honey bees might use a bee hive.
For a couple of years, we had a nest in our compost heap. At that time, the composter was made of plastic, and close to the back door of the house. There were wasps going in and out all the time. I am especially tolerant, however, and didn’t worry about the nest. I simply stopped using the composter for some months.
Later, we dismantled the compost bin, and moved it to another area of the garden. The wasps did not come back. We then acquired a larger compost bin, and bumble bees moved in, and successfully reared workers, males and new queens :).
Anyway, I was never stung (and nor have I ever been stung by a wasp), nor was my husband (though he has previously been stung: at that time, he used to hate wasps and reacted accordingly, but he has since developed a tolerance of them, and now leaves them alone). I find I am able to keep calm around wasps, and believe this is part of the answer, but that's just my opinion.
Another common place to see wasp nests, and sometimes an occasional hibernating queen or two, is in the loft or attic.
As stated, we have had hibernating wasp queens in the attic, and we found a nest - already abandoned. I am quite protective, and never harm the queens.
Everyone's situation is different, and indeed, an especially large nest could cause alarm, especially where there are pets and young children.
I believe understanding helps to replace fear with respect.
I'm convinced that fear, and the corresponding release of pheromones, not to mention any accompanying arm waving etc, actually provokes stings.
A calm approach plus an awareness of the benefits of having wasps around, will help put things in perspective. For example, in my experience, there is rarely a major threat from solitary wasps, and nests can be left alone.
I genuinely recommend this book below - it will inspire and educate children (and even any adults who read it!).
Also, please see my page about the structure of a wasp nest here. Some lovely pictures are shared, and further explanation about the building of the nest itself. The lady who sent in the images could hardly wait to take the pieces of nest to a school for children to learn all about it!
My generation and earlier, were brought up to 'kill just in case' - and in ignorance.
Action may be necessary, but learning to be calm could prevent stings or aggravating nests in the first place.
Please help spread the word and re-educate people about wasps!
If you discover a large nest and find this intolerable, you will have to call for professional help.
Alternatively, you could leave the nest alone and could remove any disused nest at the end of the season, or leave the remaining nest to deter wasps from building a new one close by in future.
If you are going to remove an old, disused nest yourself, wear protective gloves and
clothing to ensure you are not
caught out by any left-behind wasps. After that, install a Waspinator.
They need to be put in place at the beginning of the season, before wasps arrive, otherwise they won't work.
A Waspinator looks like a wasp nest, thus deterring
wasps from building a nest nearby, because - as stated earlier, wasps
are territorial. You could have a go at making one, but on the
other hand, they are not too expensive and should last some time. If you
already have the materials, you may as well make one.
You can also use them to take
with you on picnics. I do not advise similar products made from paper - they are not durable, and though initially cheaper, probably will not last as long.
You can get a Waspinator from Amazon.
(Disclaimer: as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases from links on my site - this won't affect the price to you, and helps me with the cost of running this site where I provide lots of free information. Because I would like to have wasp nests in my garden, I have never tried this method, but have heard good reports when used correctly).
If the nest appears on school premises, the wasp colony may be finished and gone by the time children return from the summer vacation period. An empty nest may then provide an interesting talking and study opportunity - ensure there are no wasps inside.
On the other hand, the nest may be very active.
Seek assistance as appropriate. You could also consult a local wildlife organisation - are they able to advise you of the species, and whether it will soon be gone anyway?
I also recommend a number of repellents:
Please note: as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases for links to Amazon products.
If you are simply bothered by wasps in the garden, remember they are excellent pollinators and natural pest-controllers, but if you still find them intolerable, then try the repellents mentioned - and see the very practical tips on my page about deterring wasps.
Wasps are fascinating creatures!
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