Dr. Paul A. Zahl/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Most paper wasps measure about 2 cm (0.75 in) long and are black, brown, or reddish in color with yellow markings. Paper wasps will defend their nest if attacked. Adults forage for nectar, their source of energy, and for caterpillars to feed the larvae (young). They are natural enemies of many garden insect pests. A widespread North American species is the golden paper wasp.
The nests of most species are suspended from a single, central stalk and have the shape of an upside-down umbrella. Some tropical species make nests that hang in a vertical sheet of cells. Plant and wood fibers are collected by the wasps, mixed with saliva, and chewed into a papier-mêch?-like material that is formed into the thin cells of the nest. The nests are constructed in protected places, such as under the eaves of buildings or in dense vegetation. Normally a colony of several to several dozen paper wasps inhabit the nest.
The colony is founded in early spring, soon after the queens (mated females) emerge from hibernation. As the colony matures, males and the next year's queens are produced. These queens mate with males and are the only members of the colony to survive through winter. In late summer or fall, the founding queen, workers (unmated females), and males all die. The newly mated queens hibernate, typically in piles of wood, in vegetation, or in holes. The following spring they emerge and begin the cycle anew. A similar life cycle is found in bumble bees.
In most temperate species of paper wasps, colonies are founded by one female who dominates the colony and lays most of the eggs. This female constructs the nest, lays eggs, forages, and raises the first generation of offspring. She then stops foraging, becomes the queen, and rules by dominating her offspring of workers. This is a classic dominance hierarchy with the queen maintaining control through aggressive interactions. Each individual in line maintains dominance over all others below her through confrontation and aggressive interactions. If the queen dies or is otherwise lost, the most aggressive worker takes over. This worker begins laying eggs and continues to dominate all below her. Since the workers have not mated, they can only lay unfertilized eggs, which develop into males, a typical trait in wasps.
Some queens that are unsuccessful at establishing their own nest may join another queen, submitting to her dominance and becoming a worker. Studies have shown that such individuals, called joiners, are most often sisters of the queen. Since this individual mated the previous fall, her eggs can develop into workers and she could become the next queen if the founding queen is lost. Occasionally a joiner dominates the founding queen and takes over the nest, a behavior known as usurpation. In such rare cases, the usurper becomes the queen and the previous queen becomes a worker.
Scientific classification: Paper wasps are in the genus Polistes in the family Vespidae, which also includes potter wasps, yellow jackets, and hornets. The golden paper wasp is Polistes fuscatus.