Polistes dominulaEuropean paper wasp

Geographic Range

European paper wasps are native to the Palearctic Region around the Mediterranean, northern Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and eastern China. They were introduced to the Nearctic Region of North America in the 1970s and 1980s. Although initially found primarily on the east coast of the United States, they have since spread into the Midwest and recently towards the western and southwestern United States. European paper wasps were introduced to Canada, including Ontario, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia in the 1990’s. They have also been introduced to Chile and Argentina in the Neotropical Region as well as western Australia in the Australian Region. (Cervo, et al., 2000; Jacobs, 2011)


European paper wasps live in temperate and terrestrial habitats including chaparral, forest and grassland biomes. They reside in urban, suburban, and agricultural locations. They tend to reside close to human civilization because they nest in human structures. They also live in forests and on plants where they can feed and nest. When nesting, they choose spaces created by farm machinery and recreational structures. During winter, impregnated queens reside in protected locations such as within house walls or in hollow trees. These females then create nests in these locations or nearby at the beginning of spring. (Buck, et al., February 19, 2008; Jacobs, 2011; Rusina, et al., 2011)

Physical Description

European paper wasps are black wasps with yellow markings including rings along the abdomen and spots located in various locations on the clupeus (face) and abdomen, associated with gender and possibly dominance. Differences in the clypeal coloration patterns may suggest aggression and status levels. Some individuals have one spot on their clypeus, and a greater quantity of black on the clypeus may suggest dominance and also indicate physical size. The flagella (antennae) are bright reddish-orange. (Buck, et al., 2008a; Buck, et al., 2008b; Buck, et al., February 19, 2008; Green and Field, 2010)

European paper wasps are smaller than the native Northern paper wasps and measure 2.0 cm in length on average. They are bilaterally symmetrical, and their bodies are made up of tagmata including a head, thorax, and abdomen, with a thin constriction between the thorax and abdomen. They have six legs, a pair of antenna, and a pair of wings. There is an indentation located in the mesopleuron, as well as ridging along the propodeum (the first abdominal segment that is fused to the thorax). Compared to other species in their genus (Polistes), European paper wasps are known to fly with their hind legs positioned slightly below their body. (Buck, et al., 2008a; Buck, et al., February 19, 2008; Cranshaw, 2008)

Coloration and size exhibit sexual dimorphism. The ventral surface is black in females and yellow in males. Females tend to be larger than males. Female forewing length ranges from 9.5 to 13.0 mm, whereas males' forewings range from 8.5 to 12.0 mm. (Buck, et al., 2008a; Buck, et al., 2008b)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Average length
    2.0 cm
    0.79 in
  • Range wingspan
    8.5 to 13.0 mm
    0.33 to 0.51 in


Metamorphosis takes place as eggs develop into larvae, which are fed by both the queen and worker wasps that collect food. The larvae pupate and then transform into adults. If the temperature and food conditions are optimal, the eggs develop into adults in 40 days. Vibrations caused by adult European paper wasps influences whether the developing larvae become workers or founders. This vibration is caused by antennae drumming which biochemically affects the larvae and alters gene expression in the larval stage. (Suryanarayanan, et al., 2011)

Juvenile Hormone (JH) is found in many Polistes species and functions in regulating development, diapause, and reproduction. Whereas in other species JH responsiveness may differ between foundresses and workers, in European paper wasps, JH responsiveness is condition-dependent and there are no clear differences in responsiveness between foundresses and workers. (Tibbetts, et al., 2011)


Within colonies of European paper wasps, one queen generally mates with multiple males. Resident males often copulate with the female more often than transient males. Resident males defend one landmark for a few consecutive days, while transient males may fly between multiple landmarks. Their preferred landmarks are large trees. They may mark their leaf and stem perches by rubbing their legs and last sternite (component of the sternum on the ventral portion of the abdomen) on them. In choosing males, a queen flies over the different males' territories and tends to choose a resident male because residence often suggests that a male is large, aggressive, and sexually active. Once the larvae develop, the workers assist the foundress in providing food for the larvae through cooperative breeding. (Beani and Turillazzi, 1987; Beani, et al., 1992)

Queen European paper wasps are more likely to copulate with non-nestmate males than nestmate males. On the contrary, males do not discriminate between nestmate and non-nestmate females. Females reject a significant number of copulation efforts by males. Females are known to mate with several males, thus suggesting a form of post-copulatory choice in the female. (Liebert, et al., 2010)

European paper wasps are dioecious and copulate through internal sexual reproduction. Females are iteroparous and mate throughout the spring, creating numerous broods. In the fall, reproductive females mate one final time and find a place to take shelter and hibernate for the winter. They store sperm post-copulation at the end of the season which helps to delay fertilization until the spring. They reside in spaces within houses, in walls, and outdoors. In April and May, they establish nests typically in dark, protected locations. They often choose man-made structures to build nests, and also protective rocks. European paper wasps nest in man-made structures more often than northern paper wasps (Polistes fuscatus). Female wasps sometimes nest alone without other female foundresses. Alternatively, females choose to nest with other fertilized females and create multiple-foundress nesting sites. Occasionally, females choose to wait in their winter hibernation location until later in the season, when they can take over a nest that has been abandoned by another foundress. Foundresses attach their paper nests, constructed from wood fibers and paper, to wood, metal, or rock. At the beginning of the season, the fertilized female lays eggs within the few paper cells of the nest. Over the course of the season, worker wasps help to reconstruct and increase the size of the nest. (Cranshaw, 2008; Zanette and Field, 2011)

Females lay eggs within cells of the nest that hatch, pupate, and develop into adults in 3 to 4 weeks after they are laid. The eggs hatch into larvae in 3 to 5 days, and the queen wasp feeds them masticated caterpillars. The larvae create a silk cap over the top of a nest cell and pupate within this closed nest section. Within 3 to 4 weeks, the pupal wasps develop into full-sized adults. As adult wasps develop, they become workers within the colony and are subordinate to the female queen. In the summer and later part of the season, several dozen wasps comprise the colony. These worker wasps help the foundress gather resources to feed future larvae and construct sufficient nest space for them. Some of the workers become reproductive males and females towards the end of the season. These wasps reproduce, but fertilized females are the only wasps to survive the winter into the next season. (Cranshaw, 2008)

  • Breeding interval
    European paper wasps breed numerous times each year, and have numerous broods.
  • Breeding season
    European paper wasps typically mate in spring, summer and fall.
  • Average gestation period
    3-5 days

Female European paper wasps protect and provision their offspring from before they are fertilized until the weaning process. Eggs develop in their bodies until there is a nest to lay them in. Once the eggs hatch, the foundress feeds the larvae chewed up insects like caterpillars. The first brood of the season become worker wasps that help to construct the nest and collect food for the following broods. The queen focuses her energy on laying more eggs while the workers provide the necessary defense and resources for the colony. (Bartelt, 2011)

  • Parental Investment
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents


The lifespan of the queen wasp is longer than worker because workers protect the queen and she hibernates during the winter. Colonies with one or more queens are founded in late March or April. These initially start with the single or multiple foundresses that were fertilized in the fall. They lay their eggs, which eventually develop into the first set of workers of the season. Neither males nor non-reproductive females survive the winter; their lifespan is less than a year. They only survive the spring, summer, and fall seasons. Reproductive females may survive multiple seasons. (Cranshaw, 2008; Strassmann, et al., 2004)


European paper wasps are mobile and move by flying and walking. They are social and live in colonies that have dominance hierarchies between the queen and the workers, including hierarchies within the working wasps. Among the workers, four typical behaviors occur. These include: general movement and behavior on the nest, searching for prey, further construction of the nest, and sitting on the nest. European paper wasps are diurnal and return to the nest for the night. (Karsai, et al., 1996; Theraulaz, et al., 1990)

Since aggressive behaviors are costly, having a distinctive facial phenotype for clypeal coloration may decrease the level of competition from other wasps. European paper wasps may be more likely to challenge a weaker rival based on its clypeal pattern. (Cervo, et al., 2008; Green and Field, 2010; Sheehan and Tibbetts, 2009; Theraulaz, et al., 1992; Tibbetts and Dale, 2004)

Female queens are fertilized in the fall, go into hibernation, and produce eggs in the early spring. Once these eggs become adults after 3 to 4 weeks, they become workers within the colony and are subordinate to the female queen. In the summer and later part of the season, several dozen wasps compose the colony. Within wasp colonies, the first born wasps of a brood may be the ones that become an integral part of the colony, whereas wasps born later in the brood may have lower social status or may be excluded from the colony. In small colonies, the workers besides the initial six from a brood often have little interaction with higher ranked wasps. (Cranshaw, 2008; Karsai, et al., 1996)

A fertilized female European paper wasp that starts a colony during the spring builds a nest along with the help of her first brood of offspring. The wasps continue to use this nest throughout the season although they add to it as the colony gets larger. The following season the fertilized female, whether the same or different individual from the previous year, establishes a new nest and rarely returns to the nest of the previous year. Foundresses visit significantly less area on the comb than workers. Each wasp visits roughly 12% of the comb surface within a day regardless of the total time that they spend on the nest that day. While workers visited on average 52% of the comb surface over many days, foundresses only visited 50%. (Baracchi, et al., 2010; Cranshaw, 2008)

Home Range

There is little information about the home range of European paper wasps.

Communication and Perception

Recognition between European paper wasp individuals increases the level of cooperation and simultaneously decreases the level of aggression between wasps. However, there may be no individual recognition bbecause quantities of aggressive behaviors are the same regardless of whether the wasps have met before or not. (Sheehan and Tibbetts, 2010)

In order to differentiate between nestmates and non-colony members, European paper wasps may rely on isolated cuticular hydrocarbons located on the epicuticle, the outside waxy layer of the cuticle. These hydrocarbons serve as a chemical identification signal for individuals to discriminate between members of their colony and other colonies. However, polar compounds located on the epicuticle do not play a role in this identification. (Bruschini, et al., 2011)

European paper wasps use tactile communication in two forms of dominance behavior: mounting and boxing. The more extreme form, mounting, involves a more dominant wasp drumming his or her antennae on another wasp's head, resulting in the recipient wasp lowering its head and antennae in response. Boxing consists of a wasp using its front legs to bat at another wasp and grappling with it by curling and spiraling its body around its opponent to try to gain dominance. European paper wasps also lightly bat other wasps’ heads with their antennae or drum on their abdomens as a more subtle form of analyzing them. (Izzo, 2011)

Food Habits

European paper wasps are omnivorous, but sometimes predatory, feeding on insect larvae and caterpillars. They also consume aphids, honeydew, and nectar from flowers. European paper wasps consume a wider variety of insects than northern paper wasps, which specialize in caterpillars. (Cervo, et al., 2008)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit
  • nectar


European paper wasps look similar to other species in the genus, which may make it difficult for predators to discern between two species. (Bartelt, 2011)

Ecosystem Roles

Both native and introduced colonies of European paper wasps play a role in pollinating plants. They also consume insects, particularly caterpillars, as both adults and larvae. In certain areas where European paper wasps are an introduced species, there are significant concerns regarding its effects on the native Northern paper wasp. Since European paper wasps establish their nests before native species in the spring, they can expand their colonies without significant competition. By nesting early in the season, they avoid bird predators, thereby increasing their survival rate and the likelihood that early broods survive and develop into workers that can protect larvae. Unlike native members of their genus (Polistes), European paper wasps consume caterpillars as well as other foods, and their varied diet benefits larval development due to increased nutritional variation. Their reproductive success may have negative effects on native (Polistes) species populations, as well as other insects. (Cervo, et al., 2000; Cranshaw, 2008; Jacobs, 2011; Stahlhut, et al., 2006)

Native European paper wasps in the Mediterranean are often infected by parasitoids including Endurus argiolus and Xenos vesparum. Adult parasitoids lay eggs on or inside of a host organism, which eventually hatch into larvae that infect, sterilize, and sometimes kill their hosts. These North American parasitoids do not generally infect European paper wasps in the United States because they do not recognize them as hosts based on their recent introduction. Wolbachia is a parasitic microbe bacteria that infects male and female European paper wasps in both Italy and northeastern United States. (Cervo, et al., 2000; Jacobs, 2011; Stahlhut, et al., 2006)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • bacteria (Wolbacia)
  • parasitoid insects (Xenos vesparum)
  • parasitoid wasps (Endurus argiolus)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

European paper wasps pollinate plants, thereby benefiting humans. They help control insects such as caterpillars, hornworm larvae, cabbageworms, tent caterpillars, and larvae of sawfly families Cimbicidae, Diprionidae, and Tenthredinidae. (Bartelt, 2011; Cranshaw, 2008)

  • Positive Impacts
  • pollinates crops
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

European paper wasps sting humans and other animals when they get too close to their nests. Additionally, native wasp species may be threatened by them, which could eventually affect the fauna in the area. European paper wasps choose to nest in man-made structures more often than other species in their genus (Polistes) and thus people often resort to using pesticides or other techniques to kill the wasps and remove the nests. (Bartelt, 2011; Buck, et al., 2008a)

  • Negative Impacts
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

Conservation Status

European paper wasps are not threatened or endangered.


Eliza Stout (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.



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

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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


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.

cooperative breeder

helpers provide assistance in raising young that are not their own

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 mainly eats fruit


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


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


referring to animal species that have been transported to and established populations in regions outside of their natural range, usually through human action.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


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


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


Referring to a mating system in which a female mates with several males during one breeding season (compare polygynous).

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


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.


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.


movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others


uses sight to communicate


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