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Yellow Jackets vs. Paper Wasps: What’s the Difference?

Confused between yellow jackets and paper wasps? While both pack a punch with their stings, they're not twins!

Yellow jackets flaunt vivid yellow and black stripes and often crash your picnic, making them notorious pests. Paper wasps, sporting longer bodies and muted yellow-brown tones, prefer the quiet, building umbrella-shaped nests out of the way.

Keep reading to learn how to spot these winged rivals better!

Key Takeaways

  • Yellow jackets are robust, highly aggressive, and often nest underground, while paper wasps are slender, less aggressive, and build visible, umbrella-shaped nests.
  • Signs of a wasp infestation may include observing nests in sheltered areas, increased wasp activity around the home, visible combs, and hearing buzzing sounds from hidden nests.
  • Preventing wasp stings and infestations may involve securing garbage, using targeted insecticides, repairing home exteriors to remove nesting spots, and being vigilant about food storage during outdoor activities.
  • Professional pest control should be contacted for safe and effective removal when wasp nests are inaccessible or in high-risk areas near homes or entryways.

What Are Yellow Jackets?

Yellow jackets are a type of wasp from the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula.

They are often mistaken for bees due to their similar size and appearance, but they play a distinct role in the ecosystem as scavengers and predators.

Features of Yellow Jackets

Yellow jackets are known for their distinctive black and yellow striped bodies and lance-like stinger without barbs.

To distinguish a yellow jacket from other species, note the following details:

Body Shape: Segmented body with a defined thin waist, different from the rounded body of a bee.

Behavior: More aggressive than other wasps, especially when their nest is disturbed.

Nest Location: Yellow jacket nests can often be found underground or in dark, concealed spaces.

Diet: Known to be scavengers, frequently seen around human activity, especially where food or sweet drinks are present.

What Are Paper Wasps?

Paper wasps are a group of wasp species known for their distinctive nest-making behavior and social structure.

Nesting: Paper wasp nests are open, umbrella-shaped nests made from wood fibers that mix with saliva.

Social Structure: Semi-social and live in small colonies, where a queen dominates reproduction while others assume responsibilities like foraging for caterpillars and nest maintenance.

Yellow Jackets vs. Paper Wasps: Key Differences

yellow jacket vs paper wasp comparison

While both belong to the order Hymenoptera and are considered social wasps, yellow jackets and paper wasps differ significantly in appearance.

Here’s a closer look at what sets them apart from each other.


Yellow Jacket

Paper Wasp


10-16 mm

15-20 mm


Bright yellow and black

Brownish with yellow highlights


Short and stout

Long and slender

Body Shape

Robust with a thicker waist

Slender with an elongated waist


Folded laterally when at rest

Held away from the body when at rest



Longer, often "dangle" during flight

Behavioral Patterns

Behaviorally, both species have complex social structures, with a queen that lays all the eggs and workers that maintain the nest and care for the young. Here’s how they differ.

Behavior Type

Yellow Jacket

Paper Wasp

Aggression Level

High when threatened

Less aggressive, stings when provoked

Social Structure

Large colonies, highly social

Smaller colonies, less densely populated


Will chase intruders away from the nest

Less likely to chase


Repeated stings possible

Typically sting once

Nesting Habits

Nest habits and characters are an essential difference between these species. Here’s how you can tell their nests apart.

Nesting Characteristics

Yellow Jacket

Paper Wasp

Nest Location

Underground or ground-nesting

Eaves, rafters, open areas

Nest Appearance

Enclosed, large, with smooth covering

Open, umbrella-shaped cells

Nest Material

Chewed cellulose

Wood fibers mixed with saliva

Colony Size

Can contain thousands of individuals

Typically host fewer individuals


Usually hard to access

More accessible, visible

What Are the Signs of an Infestation?

Before taking action against wasps, it's crucial to recognize the clear signs of an infestation by yellow jackets or paper wasps.

Here's what to look for:

1. Nest Location

  • Yellowjackets: Often found in wall voids or other dark, enclosed areas of a building and are sometimes noticeable in attics or even holes in the ground.

  • Paper Wasps: Their nests, which resemble an umbrella in shape, are usually attached to branches, eaves, or overhangs.

2. Visible Combs

  • Combs are the structures that house wasp larvae and are a telltale sign of an established nest. They can sometimes be seen through openings in walls or ceilings.

3. Insect Activity

  • A sudden increase in wasp presence can indicate a nearby nest.

  • Frequent sightings of wasps buzzing around a particular area often point to a nest entrance.

4. Buzzing Sounds

  • Unexplained buzzing noises, especially from wall voids or ceilings, may suggest the presence of a hidden nest.

How to Prevent Stings and Infestations

Preventing stings and infestations of yellow jackets and paper wasps involves proactive measures around the home and cautious behavior during outdoor activities.

Preventative Measures for Homes

As homeowners, you can significantly reduce the likelihood of American and Western yellow jacket or paper wasp encounters, particularly in late summer when wasp activity peaks.

Here are some strategies to prevent stings from these social insects at home:



Secure Garbage Cans

Ensure lids are tight-fitting to prevent scents from attracting wasps.

Use of Insecticides

Apply insecticides designed for wasps to areas around the home, mainly focusing on eaves and porches.

Repair Home Exteriors

Seal cracks and crevices and repair damaged siding to eliminate nesting spots.

Wasp Traps

Install wasp traps from high-traffic areas to draw wasps away from the home.

Limit Attractants

Keep food covered and dispose of it properly to avoid luring wasps.

Maintain Property

Regularly inspect and manage overgrown vegetation that can harbor wasp nests.

Professional Assistance

Enlist the help of experts for safe and effective pest control.

When Should You Call the Professionals

When dealing with yellow jackets or paper wasps, you might not always be thrilled about the idea of an up-close encounter.

Should the nest be snuggled in a tricky spot, like inside walls or very close to entryways, making a call to professional pest control companies (like us, here at Native Pest Management) is the safer bet.

Pest control gurus like us have the gear, the know-how, and the gusto to handle stinging squatters. So, when in doubt, you should let us scout!