The well known and dreaded group of wasps known as yellow jackets are abundant in Massachusetts where they often build their nests on and near homes. In addition to yellow jacket wasps, Massachusetts is also home to several paper wasp species, but they are not nearly as aggressive as yellow jackets. It is not uncommon for people to mistake yellow jackets with other bee and wasp species, particularly honey bees. But yellow jackets are not often confused with paper wasp species, unless the paper wasp species happens to be the non-native Polistes gallicus species. This species was introduced into the Boston area during 1981, and not long after, these paper wasps were documented in Cambridge, Somerville, Belmont, and Newton. Today, Polistes gallicus is abundant in all areas of Massachusetts. While yellow jackets and Polistes gallicus paper wasps demonstrate similar behaviors and possess a similar appearance, these two wasp species differ in several important ways.
Unlike yellow jackets, the Polistes gallicus paper wasp is not likely to swarm and inflict repeated stings to humans, but these wasps do produce venom that can lead to severe allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. The Polistes gallicus species is native to nearly all of Europe, north Africa, parts of the middle east and eastern Russia. The manner in which this species was transported into Massachusetts remains unknown, but they seemingly had no problem thriving within the northeast US.
Much like yellow jackets, the Polistes gallicus paper wasp tends to construct similarly shaped nests on structures and hollow posts, most notably a home’s gutters. Also like yellow jackets, the Polistes gallicus species possesses a strikingly yellow appearance, but they are noticeably smaller than yellow jackets. If examined closely, the Polistes gallicus species has a bright yellow head but distinctly different marking elsewhere on its body when compared to the yellow jacket. Both of these wasp species are attracted to human food sources and can appear in Massachusetts homes, but a keen-eyed individual will be able to differentiate the two species.
Have you ever spotted a yellow jacket nest that turned out to belong to a different species of wasp?