Understanding Wasps – They Are Not Evil!

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Robert Pavlis

Why do people hate wasps? They can sting, but 97% of wasp species don’t. A sting hurts but you can do things to avoid being stung. A lot of people have an unhealthy fear of wasps, probably because they know very little about them except for the common yellow jackets which almost every gardener can recognize.

In this post I will explore their world and hopefully reduce your fear of them. I’ll also show you how to avoid getting stung, or at least lower the chance of an encounter. Learn more about wasps – they are extremely important for the garden.

People are starting to like bees, at least a little bit. Now it is time to fall in love with wasps!

Wasps have hairless bodies, tend to be long and sleek with a narrow waist between the abdomen and thorax.
Wasps have hairless bodies and tend to be long and sleek with a narrow waist between the abdomen and thorax.

Wasp Myths

If you are interested in some wasp myths, have a look at this post; 10 Wasp Myths that Will Surprise You

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

Bees, Wasps and Hornets

Bees, wasps and hornets are all insects and many people clump them all into one group – those nasty stinging bunch of insects. It is important to understand the difference between bees, wasps and hornets in order to appreciate their significance in the garden.

Here is a brief description of the differences.

Bees are mostly hairy, have fat legs and short fat bodies. Bees eat pollen and nectar, and in the process of gathering these they pollinate flowers.

Bees are mostly hairy, have fat legs and short fat bodies.
Bees are mostly hairy, have fat legs and short fat bodies.

Wasps and hornets are very similar to each other and people tend to confuse the two because of some incorrect common names. For example the bald-faced hornet and the Australian hornet are actually wasps, not hornets.

Wasps and hornets have hairless bodies and tend to be long and sleek with a narrow waist (the petiole) between the abdomen and thorax. They are predators and for the most part they eat other insects. Adults may on occasion feed on nectar and pollen but most wasps are not important pollinators. The fig wasp is an exception to this rule. It pollinates 1,000 different types of figs.

Wasps vs Hornets

Hornets are a special type of wasp. So all hornets are wasps, but all wasps are not hornets.

Hornets can be distinguished from other wasps by their wider heads and larger, more rounded abdomens. They tend to be less colorful and always have two sets of wings. Adult hornets feed on plant matter and enjoy sweet substances like nectar, sap, and rotten fruit. They also eat other insects and feed them to their larvae.

Hornets are not native to North America, but one species has been introduced; the European or brown hornet.

Description of Wasps

Great golden digger wasp feasting on a grasshopper, by Anna's Perennials
Great golden digger wasp feasting on a grasshopper, not aggressive, by Anna’s Perennials

When most people think of wasps they visualize the yellow jacket. This is understandable since this is the wasp people see most often and if someone has been stung it is most likely from the yellow jacket. There are over 30,000  different named wasps and most do not sting. All of them are extremely important for controlling garden pests.

Wasps can be social, forming large colonies, but most wasps are solitary. Some have two wings and others have no wings. Some make nests up high and others make nests in the ground. Wasps have many body shapes and colors.

Some wasps sting, but most wasps never or rarely sting animals.

For the most part wasps are hunters and their prey is other insects. They play an important role in protecting your plants.

Stings, Venom and Allergies

Most bees and wasps do not sting, but a few do. For most people a sting causes both pain and irritation at the sting site. The welts, swelling and redness you see after a sting is not a direct result of the venom. These symptoms are the result of your body reacting to the venom. This normal reaction is not an allergy. It develops over a period of a few hours and is gone in a day or two. An allergic individual will have a quicker reaction to the sting and it will be more severe.

Different people react differently to stings. Some reactions are mild, and others more severe. Only 12% of the population have severe reactions (ref 1). According to Dr. Adrian Morris, “many people (50% adults and 80% children) with mild reactions will lose their insect venom reactions over time.” (ref 1).

The venom from bee stings and wasp stings is quite different and “the vast majority of people that are allergic, are allergic to either wasp or bee but not both.” (ref 1).

Why Do Wasps Sting?

Wasps only sting when they are threatened. Yellow jackets are common visitors around the table at meal time but they won’t sting you while you are eating unless you threaten them. They visit flowers in the garden, but you can even brush up against them and they will not sting. Last week I had one buzzing around my head until it landed on my arm where he nibbled something – probably a bit of sweat. There was no cause for concern because he/she was out foraging and while doing this they normally do not sting.

Wasps sting when you threaten them. If you get stung it is probably your fault – it may not be intentional – but you are still to blame.

97% of wasps never sting even if they are threatened. About 3% will sting if threatened. If you go near their nest they will feel threatened. If you swing at them or make sudden movements it might threaten them. Stepping on them, or slapping at them is also a threat. In these cases there is a good chance you will be stung.

Ground Nests

The mostly likely time you will get stung in the garden is while you are weeding. Some wasps make ground nests and these are usually not very visible. Because of this it is common for the gardener to be going along weeding their beds. Once you pull weeds a couple of feet from the nest the wasp can sense the earth moving and they feel their nest is being attacked. They will sting you.

Once you know the nest is there, just leave it alone. You can stand within 2 feet of it and as long  as you don’t make any sudden movements, the wasps will fly by your head as they leave and enter the nest. It is a weird sensation that will make you feel uneasy, but they won’t sting you.

I find that many ground nests get dug up in mid summer, probably by skunks or raccoons. If they don’t, the nest will die off during winter and be located in some other place next year.

There is no reason to kill the wasps unless you have small pets or children that might accidentally stumble onto the nest.

The following video explains more about yellow jackets and shows you an underground nest.

YouTube video

If the above link does not work try this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJHKA-Fre0k

Paper Wasp Nests

It is common to see paper wasp nests hanging in trees or under the eaves or soffets of the house. Over the summer these nests get bigger and bigger and by the end of summer they can have up to 5,000 wasps in them.

This sounds scary, but provided that  the nest is not threatened, these wasps will not sting you.

A nest that is near a doorway should be removed so that a visitor does not unexpectedly disturb the nest. Other nests that are not near a place where people walk or sit, should be left alone. Remember, the wasps are keeping pests off your plants.

The wasp colony will die in winter and if the nest is left in place it is unlikely that wasps will build there again the following year.

Watch a Wasp Building a Nest

This is a real cool video.


If the above video does not play, try this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaX9Hdeg4FU

Things You Can Do To Avoid Being Stung

Even though it is unlikely to get stung by a bee or wasp there are still things you can do to lesson the chance of being stung. The UC Davis Integrated Pest Management program offers these tips (ref 2).

  • Bees and wasps are attracted to odors. Don’t use perfume, cologne, or scented soap.
  • Don’t go barefoot in the garden – you might step on one.
  • Avoid wearing brightly colored or patterned clothing. I was attached by wasps once and they covered my black shorts and left my white shirt alone. Thanks to the thick baggy black shorts I only got 4 stings.
  • If a wasp goes near you or sits on you, stay calm and wait until it leaves. It probably just wants to drink a bit of your sweat. If you don’t want to wait, slowly move it away with a piece of paper.
  • If you see wasps flying to and from a particular spot in the ground, avoid the area. It is almost certainly a nest.
  • Wear baggy long pants and shirts.
  • Insect repellents applied to your skin will not deter bees or wasps.
  • If you are attacked by wasps, run, but don’t swat at them. They will not follow very far.

Wasp Myths

If you are interested in some wasp myths, have a look at this post; 10 Wasp Myths that Will Surprise You



  1. Wasp and Insect Allergy; http://www.allergy-clinic.co.uk/more-about-allergy/wasp-allergy/
  2. Bee and Wasp Stings; http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7449.html
  3. National Geographic – Wasp; http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/wasp/
  4. Hornet vs Wasp; http://www.diffen.com/difference/Hornet_vs_Wasp
  5. Good discussion of bees and wasps; http://www.colostate.edu/Dept/CoopExt/4dmg/Pests/whatis.htm
  6. Photo Source for Wasp; https://pixabay.com/en/wasp-insect-close-nature-animal-1329563/
  7. Photo Source for Bee; maohlin


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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

11 thoughts on “Understanding Wasps – They Are Not Evil!”

  1. Went camping this weekend and had what I initially thought was a bee nibbling on my skin throughout the day. Took a few pics and I now know it was actually a wasp, not a bee. To be honest, had I known back then that it was a wasp, I probably would have freaked out, but I didn’t and it was the chillest little creature l! All it did was nibble and hang out. They are awesome! Thanks for such an entertaining and educating article.

  2. Our little wasps gave us no trouble at all in the rockery last year and they were present until the autumn. No sign of them here yet.

  3. We think we have ground wasps nesting – last spring if we walked past a particular tree we would be buzzed by one or two until we had passed the area for a couple of months and then they disappeared. This spring it seems they have moved one tree down and now when we walk past we get buzzed by half a dozen or so.
    We have not been able to find the next and hope they will disappear in a month or two as well….is this likely do you think?
    We also have a springer spaniel that is very active on our acreage.
    Any tips on how to deal with this, is it likely the nest if growing?
    I am a believer of live and let live but l am rather concerned as well.

    • Almost certainly, the nest is growing. Get near the point where you see them and watch them. You should see them going in and out of the nest.

  4. I am not scared of bee’s or wasps but several years ago I was stung while sleeping. I had about 26 stings and found out there were two wasps nests in our loft. We had been having work done on the roof and that must have angered them. The wasp hole was over my granddaughters bed but they never touched her, thankfully and came into my room instead. I have moved house but I have been stung every time I’m working in the garden. I was stung again today while weeding between the flowers, like you have said. I haven’t actually seen any wasps though, just a couple of bee’s. Thank you for your advice.

  5. Reassuring.we appear to have a wasp nest in the rockery by the fishpond.they are small wasps and do not seem to be aggressive,although we are discouraging our springer spaniel from the area.we are leaving it alone but are a bit worried about the number of wasps that may be in there and in August and September they may be more active in the garden.no problem so far. U.K. 2019

  6. we have 3 wasps nests in one hedge not far from each other, is this strange. we are waiting for them to go to get hedge cut. we haven,t been stung at all.


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