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Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus)

Detailing the physical features, habits, territorial reach and other identifying qualities of the Northern Paper Wasp.

 Updated: 8/23/2019; Authored By Staff Writer; Content ©

The very social Northern Paper Wasp can make a nest in unusual and unexpected places, requiring only a bit of wood of get started.

Northern Paper Wasps are most commonly found in the Midwest states. They are likely to build nests near humans as that is where a lot of wood can be found (homes, barns, sheds, fences, firewood, landscaping, etc.). The wasps use wood to create their nest. They chew the wood, mixing it with saliva to make a paste. This paste is formed into a nest that has the texture and appearance of paper.

Paper Wasps are a very social type of wasp. They rely on each other for food, shelter creation, and protection. A study was done to see what role facial recognition plays in the socialization of this species. Northern Paper Wasps can tell the difference between their own species and other wasps in the same genus (cousins). They become physically aggressive toward outsiders and attack them to protect their nest. It was a novel discovery for an insect species.

This particular species of paper wasp contains multiple fertile females for a short time, though one queen dominates all of them. She hatches just before winter and quickly mates with males before hibernating. In the spring, she establishes her nest by laying her eggs. Most of these are workers that are sterile. Fertile females and males are usually born in late summer and mate before they overwinter and establish their own nests the next spring. Once these fertile females hatch, though, they quickly come to understand their position in the social ranking. The primary queen eats any eggs that are not her own. She tells them apart by using a chemical to 'tag' her own eggs and she avoids destroying them. In this way, she quashes any attempts to usurp her authority while she is still living. She, her workers, and any males do not survive past autumn.

People and animals that disturb a nest may be stung multiple times by a single wasp because, unlike bees, do not die after one sting. Their stinger is smooth and is easily removed from skin without remaining embedded. The primary queen is first to aggressively defend her nest and her oldest workers will join her in that effort. Northern Paper Wasps actually do a great job of removing plant-devouring caterpillars from gardens. The adults eat them and will also use them to feed to their larvae when they hatch. Northern Paper Wasps are so effective at this pest control that they are almost welcome in organic gardens since their presence negates the need for chemical pesticides.
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Taxonomic Hierarchy
Kingdom: Animalia
  Phylum: Arthropoda
    Class: Insecta
      Order: Hymenoptera
        Family: Vespidae
          Genus: Polistes
            Species: fuscatus
Identifying Information
Scientific Name: Polistes fuscatus
Category: Bee, Ant, Wasp and Similar
Size (Adult; Length): 15mm to 21mm (0.59in to 0.82in)
Colorwheel Graphic Colors: yellow, red, black
Descriptors: flying, stinging, striped, spotted, banded, aggressive, social,
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Territorial Reach (A-to-Z)
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Note: An insect's reach is not limited by lines drawn on a map and therefore species may appear in areas, regions and/or states beyond those listed above as they are driven by environmental factors (such as climate change), available food supplies and mating patterns. Grayed-out selections indicate that the subject in question has not been reported in that particular territory. U.S. states and Canadian provinces / territories are clickable to their respective bug listings.

Ant, Bee, and Wasp Anatomy
Graphic showing basic anatomy of both a bee and an ant insect
Antennae: Ants and Bees both have a pair of antennae on the head that senses their surroundings.
Head: The head contains the insect's compound eyes, antennae, and mandibles.
Thorax: Contains various vital parts such as the aorta and nervous system.
Abdomen: Contains various organs including the heart, gut, venom glands, and anus.
Legs: Ants and Bees have three pairs of legs attached to the thorax (center-body section).
NOTE: Ants, Bees and Wasps are part of the Hymenoptera order because they share many similarities.