Paper Wasp vs Yellowjacket – What is the Difference?

With over 150,000 species of wasps worldwide and many more to be discovered, it’s natural that many people confuse wasp species. Many are similar in appearance, causing confusion because of it. However, knowing which is what is essential since not all species are alike.

Some wasps are rather beneficial to the environment, while others lean more towards pests.

Today, we will discuss 2 of the most (in)famous wasp species, the paper wasp and the yellowjacket. How can you tell the 2 apart and which are the key facts to learn about each of them?

Let’s see!

Are Paper Wasps and Yellowjackets the Same?

No. Paper wasps and yellow jackets belong to the same Hymenoptera order and the same family, but they belong to a different genus. Yellowjackets fall into the Vespula genus, while paper wasps belong to Polistes.

These are the taxonomic differences, but the 2 display more in terms of diet, behavior, appearance, and other areas. Here are the essential differences to note:

Difference in Appearance

– Yellowjackets

Yellowjackets are small in size, probably some of the smallest wasps you can find. People tend to picture them as larger due to their more aggressive nature and the scary factor they deliver. Yellowjackets are also bulky, with meatier abdomens, and display yellow and black bodies, typically more yellow than black.

– Paper Wasp

Paper wasps have more slender bodies with thinner waists. They also have yellow legs, just like yellowjackets, but their bodies display more black compared to the latter. Many subspecies will also showcase variations of red and brown around the legs, head, and thorax. Other than that, they all share similar characteristics.

Difference in Size

– Yellowjackets

Yellowjackets will typically reach around 0.5 inches in length, which is small even by wasp standards. They will, however, make up for their lack in size via their eusocial behavior. Yellowjackets live in colonies, some capable of reaching 15,000 members, at which point the wasp’s size doesn’t matter anymore.

This wasp species displays a swarming behavior that will make up for its non-intimidating appearance really fast.

– Paper Wasp

The paper wasp is larger, reaching up to 1.5 inches. However, this wasp’s size will vary between the various subspecies of paper wasps, with the average standing around 0.7 – 1 inch. The same eusocial behavior applies to paper wasps as well, as these insects also form nests during the warm season, die when winter comes, and reset in the spring, thanks to their hibernating queen.

Difference in Diet

Yellowjackets and paper wasps have pretty much identical diets. They both have a sweet tooth and will consume a lot of sweet liquids, primarily nectar, honey, if possible, soda, ripe fruits, sugar, etc. Their feeding habits often bring them close to human settlements, hence the constant war between us and humans ranking these insects as pests.

Most people don’t know that wasps are also pest-controlling insects, which also relates to their diet. Adult wasps prefer sugary substances, fruits, and even rotten meat, but the wasp larvae eat protein exclusively during their growth phase. This means that the adult wasps need to hunt insects like flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and caterpillars, which are considered agricultural pests.

The wasps will kill and chew the prey, then carry it to their nest to feed the larvae. This feeding cycle keeps wasps higher in the food chain compared to many pest insects. They are so effective in this sense that people have even relocated certain wasp species to counter the invasion of crop-destroying insect species naturally.

On the other hand, many species of wasps will also feed on bees and destroy their nests, so you have that as well.

Difference in Nesting

Both species build their nest in a similar fashion. Yellowjackets and paper wasps rely on their queen to build the nest since the queen is the only one surviving the winter. All workers will die as soon as the cold season sets in. The queen will use wood fibers or even plant matter as the building blocks, which will mix with saliva during the mastication process.

The queen will create modest structures divided into separate cells designed to house the eggs and the growing larvae. After the construction is complete, the queen will begin to lay its eggs and care for the resulting larvae. These will eventually develop into the first generation of workers who will expand the nest to accommodate future generations of larvae. At that point, the queen’s sole role is to lay eggs.

The only major difference between paper wasps and yellowjackets in terms of nesting is where they build their nest. Paper wasps prefer aerial nests hanging from tree branches, while yellowjackets place their nests on the ground level or even underground.

Difference in Sting

The real aspect that matters here is the behavioral difference between the 2 species. Otherwise, many aspects regarding their stinging capabilities and effects remain the same. Both insects are venomous, their sting hurts and triggers varying effects like swelling, itching, redness, and pain, and they can sting multiple times.

Aside from these similarities, paper wasps and yellowjackets are behaviorally different, which is actually important to note. Paper wasps are more timid and will only sting when threatening their nest or maybe catching and holding them tight.

There’s nothing timid about yellowjackets.

These wasps will sting at a moment’s notice, simply because you happen to exist around them. Many things will trigger an aggressive response, including wearing a strong perfume or displaying colorful clothes that yellowjackets love to explore up-close and personal. Any subtle movement will be considered a sign of aggression and faced with a small but powerful stinger.

At the same time, both species will become notoriously dangerous when nearing their nest. All wasps inject a specific alert pheromone along with the venom, which other wasps can detect. The odor informs them of the presence of an intruder, triggering the swarming behavior and resulting in an unpleasant experience for the victim.

To make things worse, a lot of people are allergic to insect venom, in which case they might experience severe anaphylactic symptoms when stung. Throw in a belligerent swarm of several hundred wasps, and the consequences can be deadly.


Paper wasps and yellow jackets all qualify as wasps, and there are essentially minor differences between them, except for size variations and offensive behavior. Aside from all the grim specifications, wasps are also beneficial for the environment, so don’t get too excited about killing them.

They are mediocre flower pollinators and keep garden pests in check. So, you could give them a chance, so long as they don’t build nests around your home; they’re not exactly the best companions to have around in large numbers.

Wasps   Updated: January 20, 2022
avatar Welcome to Insectic, a blog to learn about insects and bugs. I'm Richard, and I've created this website to share my experience, knowledge, and passion with others.

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