Wasp Nests - Identification And What To Do About Them

Updated: 29th January 2021

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 on my page about farming and wasps.

In fact, as with bees, there are actually thousands of wasp species, and most are solitary and are pretty harmless, although if disturbed, some species can deliver a pretty painful sting 

In the garden, wasps 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. 

What Do Wasp Nests Look Like?

Below are pictures of wasp nests, some of them sent in to me by readers sharing their experiences.

A social wasp nest, depending on the species and number of wasps, can be a fantastic and sophisticated structure - truly architectural masterpieces to rival the honeycombs made by honey bees!  

For further information, see the early stages of a wasp nest, and watch a video of a wasp making a nest.

Wasp nest identification

Of those wasps that build their own nests, the size of the structure and materials used may vary depending on factors such as:

  • the species 
  • the country you are in
  • whether they are social or solitary wasps.

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 colored in appearance.

Below is an excellent image by Kaitlyn from upstate New York.  This nest was made by a social species.  Kaitlyn took several images and was keen to allow the nest to thrive.  Thank you Kaitlyn!  Note the shape - it becomes elongated toward the bottom.  You can read more about this on my page:  How do wasps build nests in trees? 

A greyish wasp nest hanging from a tree branch.

This nest below was also 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, different from the nest above. 

a wasp nest which is ball shaped covered in layers of grey papery wood pulp made by the wasps, and with some branch still attached to the nest.Above: Wasp nest found in a garden shrub - my thanks to Kelly Pinnick for permission to use this image

Of course, some wasp species don't create nests to rear their offspring, but cause galls to form on the leaves and twigs of trees and bushes.  You can read more about this on my page about wasp galls.

How long do wasp nests last? 

Most 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 social 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.

Wasp nest construction: how are wasp nests made?

As stated before, 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! 

You can see more images on my page: structure of a social wasp nest.  Wasp nest are actually amazing: intricate, precise, clever.

Structure of a wasp nest revealing hexagonal nest cells all packed together, and with an outer layer which encases the papery grey cells in a kind of ball shape.Wasps are magnificent architects! - Photo by Kelly Pinnick

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!  

In fact, it is thought that wasps inspired the invention of paper around 2,000 years ago!  Read more amazing facts about wasps.  You could even say that wasps invented it, humans copied it.  When we realize just how amazing wasps are, we can appreciate them more!

Signs of wasp activity

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.

A piece of wooden fencing showing pale, thin white scratch-type markings where wasps have been gathering material with which to create pulp for constructing their nests.Above: If you look very closely, there are pale white, vertical scratches on this old piece of wooden fencing. Wasps have been gathering material with which to create pulp for constructing their nests.

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!

Where do social wasps build their nests?

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.  

* Wasp nest on eaves of a house, apartment, other building or deck overhang 

I received a wonderful email and photograph from Kellie in Canada, of a lovely paper wasp nest:

Social wasp nest above a light fitting on Kellie's deck overhang.Above: Social wasp nest on Kellie's deck overhang. She chose to leave it alone.

"I came here to learn more about a wasp nest that was getting larger on my apartment's deck overhang. 

As I have 2 decks, I chose to leave the nest alone.  As the nest grew, I found that the wasps were not aggressive when I went out to water the planter boxes on the deck, and noticed them taking advantage of the water and flowers.

I have a new appreciation for wasps and wanted to thank you for your helpful information".

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.

* In a cavity 

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.

Image showing the top of the greyish, papery wasp nest inside the barbecue.The top of the wasp nest inside the barbecue.
Photo by Deborah Hammond.

I'm grateful to Deborah for allowing me to use these images.....

View of the structure of the wasp nest from the side, showing how the wasps are using the bars of the barbecue grill to support the nest structure, with nest walls built around the bars.Here you get a better view of the structure from the side. They are apparently using the bars to support the nest structure.
Photo by Deborah Hammond.

She said: 

"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...…" 

Inside the wasp nest, the amazing architecture exposed, and you can also see some old barbecue coals.Inside the wasp nest, the amazing architecture exposed.
Photo by Deborah Hammond.

".......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's hand by the abandoned nest helps to provide some idea of scale.  The nest is much larger than the hand.Deborah's hand by the abandoned nest helps to provide some idea of scale.
Photo by Deborah Hammond.

Deborah took fantastic photographs, and I especially like the one below - a close up photograph of those amazing nest cells.

Amazing hexagonal nest cells, intricately constructed from tiny shavings of wood.Amazing hexagonal nest cells, intricately constructed from tiny shavings of wood.
Photo by Deborah Hammond.

* Wasp nest in the shed or garage

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. 

grey ball shaped nest hanging from the ceiling of a shed

* Wasp nests in chimneys

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.

* Wasp nest in a bird house

I received a wonderful email from a lady in Somerset, England, UK.  

She wrote:

"I would like to send you a photo of the wasp which is nesting in the old bird house on my kitchen wall. They are median wasps and the nest is 'clothed with smooth grey sheets' just as it says in my insect guide book. I think you will enjoy seeing it. Very unusual - at least for me."

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.

Nest of the Median wasp <I>Dolichovespula media</I> in an old bird house attached to a wall.  The nest s encased inside the bird house with some of the wasp nest expanding out of the bird house.Above: Nest of the Median wasp Dolichovespula media in an old bird house.

image showing that Within a few weeks, the same nest is no longer active, and is beginning to look a little ragged.Above: Within a few weeks, the nest is no longer active, and is beginning to look a little ragged.

* Wasp nest in the compost heap

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. 

It's very curious that some people are stung and others are not.  

I can tolerate wasps landing on my arms or hands.  Similarily, I have seen videos of beekeepers who handle whole colonies of honey bees - bare chested, and with no hat - and are never stung, whereas most beekeepers wear gloves, overalls and veils.  I can also handle bees, and despite having red ants in nearly every allotment bed on our allotment, I have never been bitten at all - but I do love ants too, and can watch them for hours!

But I tremble at the site of a large spider!  On seeing cockroaches in India, I tried to not be bothered by them, but failed miserably - and they were HUGE!  Give me a wasp any day

Oh - and did you know that some wasps help keep down the populations of pest cockroaches?  The gorgeous emerald green jewel wasp is one such example of such a helpful wasp.  Thank goodness!  

* Wasp nests in the loft or attic

Another common place to see wasp nests, and sometimes an occasional hibernating queen or two, is in the loft or attic. 

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.

Other types of wasp nest

Of course, not all members of the wasp family have the same nest architecture. For example, potter wasps (Eumeninae) and the mud wasps - Sphecidae (also called 'dauber wasps') use mud to build their nests.

Educating the next generation about wasps

Please see my page about the structure of a social wasp nest.  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!  

I believe understanding helps to replace fear with respect. 

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 also recommend A Wasp Builds a Nest: See Inside a Paper Wasp's Nest and Watch It Grow by Kate Scarborough and Martin Camm.

Seek assistance if a nest is large and intolerable - take steps to repel or deter them in the future

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, you could try some natural means to repel wasps, or 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.  Or if you have suitable materials, you could make your own.  

(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 a wasp nest 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?  

Keeping wasps out of the garden and away from the house or office block

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.

body snatcher wasp side view - image links to a page about this subject

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