Northern Paper Wasp

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Overview

The northern paper wasp, Polistes fuscatus, is the native paper wasp of New England. It is found in a much larger area from Canada to Florida. It has been displaced by the introduced European paper wasp from coastal and urban areas over the last 35 years. Building its open-comb nest under eaves and foraging on a variety of caterpillars, this wasp is beneficial when not in contact with man.

Identification

Also known as the golden paper wasp, this species is blackish or dark brownish-red with transvers yellow bands on the abdomen. The facial patterns are highly variable. When in flight, their long slender legs dangle below their body. Their open nests are attached by a single thin stalk to an overhang.

Biology

This species prefers to nest in forested areas where wood is available for building nests but it can be common in populated areas where many trees are planted. The mated queens often hibernate in attics and voids under the roof tops of buildings that are highest points on a hill. Large numbers of queens will re-appear and start new nests in the spring after searching out a suitable overhang. Nest combs are open, not surrounded by a cover of paper for protection. These wasps are not notable for aggression or stinging but will do so around their nest or in self defense.

Adults feed on nectar a main source of energy but they search out and bring back caterpillars, grasshoppers and other insects to feed to their young. At the end of the summer all of the workers, the queen and males die and only mated queens remain to over-winter.

Preventing Paper Wasp Stings

Paper wasps can sting many times, and unlike bees that have a barbed sting, paper wasps usually do not die after stinging. Once stung, the victim is marked by an alarm odor that excites nearby wasps to repeatedly sting the hapless victim. Many are hospitalized while others experience considerable pain from the venom. People who have a history of allergies, heart problems, or known sensitivity to stings should be very careful and seek medical advice when stung.

Most people only suffer temporary pain when stung. This pain can be reduced by cooling the affected area with cold water or ice. If possible, capture the wasp for identification. The venom of wasps can be used to desensitize people who have severe sting allergies. When stung out of doors, immediately vacate the area to distance yourself from a possible wasp nest. The best policy is to prevent wasp stings. When encountering a wasp, remain calm, especially if you are driving down the highway at high speeds. Pull over, stop and open all car windows to let the wasp escape before continuing. Look carefully for nests before doing yard or outdoor work. Wear foot protection out of doors.

Do not eat tuna, chicken or other smelly foods outdoors when and where wasps are actively hunting for food. Wasps may enter soft drink containers before you lift them to your mouth since wasps are attracted to strong food odors. Wash hands and mouths of children before sending them out to play.

Control

Wasps from several nests may be active in the same vicinity. When a single wasp finds food, it must return to the nest, share its food with the colony and then return to the food alone. Other wasps in the area may observe feeding by this individual and are then attracted to the immediate area by what scientists call social facilitation. When there are several wasps feeding, then even more wasps are attracted to the food.

There are wasp traps available that use food bait and an attractant inside of a clear container. Wasps are unable to exit the inverted cone trap as long as the container is kept upright and in the light. Effective lures for these traps are Grenadine syrup, tuna or coke. It is a good idea to place these traps along the perimeter of a picnic area before food is brought out to eat. Bring the food out just before you are ready to eat, eat quickly and clean up right away to avoid encountering numbers of these wasps. There are many stories of individuals who tried to use chemicals to control wasps and they ended up with multiple stings. Leave such heroics to professional pest control operators who should wear personal protective equipment.

It is possible to observe wasps returning from their food source to their nest. By setting out small chunks of tuna, you can watch struggling wasps slowly fly at a fast walking pace back to their nest. This technique, called making a bee line, is made even more effective if you are patient enough to keep placing the food closer and closer to the nest until it is found. It is better to find and have nests eliminated in the early summer rather than wait until their numbers are built up to maximum at the end of the season.

Wasps are an important part of nature and your best defense against being stung is to learn as much as you can about their biology and behavior.

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