Polistespaper wasps


The genus Polistes, whose species are commonly known as paper wasps, belongs to the subfamily Polistinae. They are members of the family Vespidae. This genus contains over 200 species. There are 11 species that live in the northeast of the United States. This genus of social wasps is one of the most common and widespread groups. (Santos, et al., 2014; Snelling, 1954)

Geographic Range

Paper wasps are found on every continent except for Antarctica. In North America, they are most common in the eastern and south-central parts of the United States. They are a cosmopolitan genus. (Paulus and Lucky, 2015; Santos, et al., 2014)

Paper wasps are found on every continent except for Antarctica. In North America, they are most common in the eastern and south-central parts of the United States. Since they are found all around the world, they are called a cosmopolitan genus. (Paulus and Lucky, 2015; Santos, et al., 2014)


Paper wasps are commonly found in woodlands and grasslands. They are active from summer to fall. Paper wasps build nests made of a papery material, hence their names. They are found in temperate and terrestrial habitats. They are found in urban, suburban, and rural locations. (Paulus and Lucky, 2015)

Paper wasps are commonly found in woodlands and grasslands. They are found in temperate and terrestrial habitats. They are active from summer to fall. Paper wasps build nests made of a papery material, which is how they got their name. They are found in urban, suburban, and rural locations. (Paulus and Lucky, 2015)

Physical Description

Paper wasps are often large, long, and slender. Their size ranges between 13-25 mm. They have a brownish or reddish color, depending on their species. They often have yellow markings. Males have yellow faces. This genus has less yellow coloring than yellow jackets and hornets. Members of this genus have a venomous sting. (Paulus and Lucky, 2015)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes shaped differently


Paper wasps undergo complete metamorphosis like other bees in the order Hymenoptera. Larvae hatch from an egg, then pass through several stages of growth. Once the larvae have fully matured, they begin the pupal stage. During this phase, pupae transform into adult bees. (Moisset, et al., 2019)


Paper wasps are eusocial, but their social organization is not as strict as other eusocial genera. Colonies of paper wasps have only workers and queens. Both types defend the nest from predators and parasites. (Moisset, et al., 2019; Paulus and Lucky, 2015)

A reproductive queen heads each nest. Smaller, infertile female workers maintain nests. Each queen mates a single time. She stores the sperm in her spermatheca. Queens lay eggs in individual, specialized cells. The first laid are female workers. The next laid eggs are unfertilized; these eggs develop into males. Finally, fertilized eggs are laid. With enough food, these eggs will develop into future queens. (Moisset, et al., 2019)

Adult male paper wasps will mate with the foundress queens of other nests. They will not mate with the queen of their own nest. After mating, the male bees will die. The fertilized queen overwinters and founds a new nest. Nests in the warmest parts of their range may last for multiple seasons. These colonies replace queens with new foundresses as needed. (Moisset, et al., 2019)

Some species of the genus of paper wasps are social parasites. In these species, female bees lay eggs in the nests of other insects. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the eggs and larvae of the insects whose nest they parasitized. (Lorenzi, 2006)


Queens of the genus Polistes live for at least one year. Workers and males have shorter lifespans. (Moisset, et al., 2019)


Paper wasps are semi-social bees. They are active from spring to late fall in the temperate regions of their range. Young fertilized queens in this region overwinter in sheltered areas like in crannies or underneath the bark of trees. Each queen is the only survivor of the previous colony. Males of the species Polistes annularis also overwinter. Paper wasps are active year-round in the warmer parts of their range. The queens of these regions do not overwinter, rather, they are replaced when needed. (Lorenzi, 2006; Moisset, et al., 2019)

Three species of the genus Polistes are obligate social parasites. They are known as the cuckoo paper wasps. Polistes semenowi, Polistes atrimandibularis, and Polistes sulcifer behave in similar manners. They do, however, have different hosts. The rest of the other 200+ species of paper wasps are facultative parasites. (Lorenzi, 2006)

The species of obligate social parasites utilize chemical mimicry to invade the nests of their hosts. After the host insects have constructed their nests, parasitic female paper wasps enter. This typically occurs before the eggs of the host have hatched. Females integrate themselves into the host colony by assuming the chemical profile of their hosts. The female wasps lay their own eggs, which develop into reproductives or males. They do not produce any workers. Rather, they depend on the workers of the host species. (Lorenzi, 2006)

Paper wasps are not as aggressive as yellow jackets and hornets. (Moisset, et al., 2019)

Communication and Perception

Like other social bees, papers wasps communicate using touch, vision, chemicals called pheromones, and wing vibrations. Bees communicate about the safety of the nest, where food is, and what they should do. Like other bees, paper wasps can see ultraviolet light. Like other social insects, paper wasps are able to recognize their nest mates by smell. (Lorenzi, 2006)

Food Habits

Paper wasps consume the nectar and gather the pollen of a wide variety of plants. They are predatory to other types of insects like caterpillars. (Moisset, et al., 2019)


The cuckoo paper wasps, the three obligate parasite species, are mimics. They imitate the chemical profile of their host species in order to invade the nests. (Lorenzi, 2006)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • mimic
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Paper wasps are important pollinators that play a significant role in the survival of their ecosystems. In addition to pollinating, they eat other types of insects. Some species of paper wasps are parasitic towards other species of their genus. (Lorenzi, 2006; Moisset, et al., 2019)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates
Species Used as Host

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Paper wasps are beneficial to humans because they are significant pollinators. They pollinate flowers while seeking out nectar. The large number of insects they eat helps control populations of unwanted insects.

  • Positive Impacts
  • pollinates crops
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Paper wasps sting to protect themselves. They attack when their nest is disturbed. Large hives may sting many times in a swarm. Paper wasps are most dangerous to people allergic to bee stings.

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
  • household pest

Conservation Status

No special conservation status.

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated


Deena Hauze (author), Animal Diversity Web Staff.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own


having a worldwide distribution. Found on all continents (except maybe Antarctica) and in all biogeographic provinces; or in all the major oceans (Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

delayed fertilization

a substantial delay (longer than the minimum time required for sperm to travel to the egg) takes place between copulation and fertilization, used to describe female sperm storage.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


the condition in which individuals in a group display each of the following three traits: cooperative care of young; some individuals in the group give up reproduction and specialize in care of young; overlap of at least two generations of life stages capable of contributing to colony labor

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


the state that some animals enter during winter in which normal physiological processes are significantly reduced, thus lowering the animal's energy requirements. The act or condition of passing winter in a torpid or resting state, typically involving the abandonment of homoiothermy in mammals.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body


A large change in the shape or structure of an animal that happens as the animal grows. In insects, "incomplete metamorphosis" is when young animals are similar to adults and change gradually into the adult form, and "complete metamorphosis" is when there is a profound change between larval and adult forms. Butterflies have complete metamorphosis, grasshoppers have incomplete metamorphosis.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats nectar from flowers


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


an organism that obtains nutrients from other organisms in a harmful way that doesn't cause immediate death


development takes place in an unfertilized egg


chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


offspring are all produced in a single group (litter, clutch, etc.), after which the parent usually dies. Semelparous organisms often only live through a single season/year (or other periodic change in conditions) but may live for many seasons. In both cases reproduction occurs as a single investment of energy in offspring, with no future chance for investment in reproduction.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


mature spermatozoa are stored by females following copulation. Male sperm storage also occurs, as sperm are retained in the male epididymes (in mammals) for a period that can, in some cases, extend over several weeks or more, but here we use the term to refer only to sperm storage by females.

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


an animal which has an organ capable of injecting a poisonous substance into a wound (for example, scorpions, jellyfish, and rattlesnakes).


uses sight to communicate


Cervi, R. 2006. Polistes wasps and their social parasites: an overview. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 43(5/6): 531-549. Accessed July 17, 2020 at https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy2.library.colostate.edu/stable/23736760.

Lorenzi, M. 2006. The Result of an Arms Race: the Chemical Strategies of Polistes Social Parasites. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 43(5/6): 550-563. Accessed July 17, 2020 at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23736761.

Moisset, B., M. Buck, C. Entz, M. Quinne, T. Kropiewnicki, A. Schisteff, C. Eiseman, S. Nacko. 2019. "Genus Polistes - Paper Wasps" (On-line). Bug Guide. Accessed July 17, 2020 at https://bugguide.net/node/view/572.

Paulus, L., A. Lucky. 2015. "Common Name: Paper Wasp, Red Wasp" (On-line). Featured Creatures. Accessed July 17, 2020 at http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/WASPS/Polistes_carolina.htm.

Santos, B., A. Payne, K. Pickett, J. Carpenter. 2014. Phylogeny and historical biogeography of the paper wasp genus Polistes (Hymenoptera: Vespidae): implications for the overwintering hypothesis of social evolution. Cladistics, 31(5): 535-549. Accessed July 19, 2020 at https://doi.org/10.1111/cla.12103.

Snelling, R. 1954. Wasps of the Genus Polistes in California and Arizona (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 27(4): 151-155. Accessed July 17, 2020 at https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy2.library.colostate.edu/stable/25082120.