Social Wasps, 1, 2, 3, 4

Vespula vulgaris, the Common wasp

Body lengths in millimetres - Queen 16 - 19, Worker 11 - 15, Male 13 - 17
Flies Apr - Sep. Found throughout Europe, temperate Asia across to Japan, and up as far as the Arctic Circle, North America and Mexico. It has also been found in Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii; where it is not native.
Anchor-shaped mark between eyes. Nests in cavities, holes in ground, attics, out houses, bushes, almost anywhere there is a dark space. Nest can be as large as 2.25 m in diameter, and can be active as late as November in the south of England. It could survive the winter if conditions are right and food is available. This wasp is a very skillful flier, it can fly up, down, forwards and even backwards.

Vespula vulgaris queen, common wasp queen

The Vespula vulgaris queen above and below is 16 - 19 mm long. The nest is started by the queen, and is about the size of a walnut. and contains 10 - 12 hexagonal cells. The queen then lays an egg in each cell. The cells point downwards, but the egg is partially stuck to the side, so it does not fall out. It takes about 4 -5 weeks from the queen starting the nest to the first workers emerging. Once the first workers emerge they take over nearly all the work formerly carried out by the queen, who can now devote herself to laying eggs. On average each cell is used twice.

Vespula vulgaris, common wasp showing the 3 ocelli or primitive eyes

Above you can see a close up of a queen's head showing the 3 simple eyes or ocelli. And below her powerful jaws perfect for crushing up insects to feed the grubs and for scraping slivers of dead wood to mix with saliva to construct the nest.

Vespula vulgaris, Common wasp

Vespula germanica, the German wasp

Body lengths in mm Q 17 - 20, W 12 - 16, M 13 - 17
Flies March - Sep. Queens fly from mid March, workers from May, and new queens and males from September. It is now found world wide due to accidental introductions. In Europe it is absent from the most northern parts of Scandinavia.
3 small black spots between eyes. Nest in cavities and holes in the ground. Nest size can reach a diameter of 1.8 m and contain thousands of individuals. It is possible, given the right conditions, for colonies to persist through the winter. Its life style is similar to V. vulgaris (see above).

Vespula germanica in Hawaii and New Zealand

Vespula germanica has been introduced to Hawaii and New Zealand, and in these areas the normal yearly life cycle of this wasp has changed.

In some nests after the founding queen has dies a new queen takes over and is accepted by the workers - she may be their sister. This can make the colonies perennial, as the weather is so mild.

In such cases the colony can increase to a huge size, and become a serious and dangerous pest.

How to tell the difference between Vespula vulgaris (the common wasp), and Vespula germanica (the German wasp)

If you look at the black mark on the face of the queen above you'll see that it is long and curved up at the ends rather like an anchor - this is typical of common wasps (Vespula vulgaris). The German wasp has 3 black spots instead of this black anchor.

Related pages