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Wasps in Michigan: The Top 5 Types

Jule Romans has over 30 years of experience researching and writing on educational topics. She presently works in State Government.

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What Kind of Wasps Live in Michigan?

Michigan's native species are:

  • Yellowjackets (Vespula species)
  • Paper Wasps (Polistes dominulus)
  • Cicada Killers (Sphecius speciosus)
  • Bald-Faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata)

These have recently been joined by an exotic species of Wood Wasps (Sirex noctilio).

Yellowjacket on flowering plant

Yellowjacket on flowering plant

1. Yellowjackets

"Vespula" wears bright yellow stripes, like a jacket.

Twelve different types of Yellowjackets make their homes in the ground, bushes, house cavities, and even the nests of other insects in Michigan.

Many Yellowjackets are scavengers, seeking protein and sugar from any source. This is what tends to make them a nuisance at late summer outings. As supplies become scarce, German, Eastern and Hybrid Yellowjackets begin scavenging meat and savory items from human food.

These species, and the Old World Yellowjackets, can eat meat as well as sugar, but honeybees cannot. Old World Yellowjacket workers also prey on other insects, including caterpillars, beetle larvae and flies.

Some of the larger colonies in wooded areas can be extremely aggressive when disturbed.

European Paper Wasp looks very similar to the Yellowjacket. Note the  subtle differences in markings and shape of body parts.

European Paper Wasp looks very similar to the Yellowjacket. Note the subtle differences in markings and shape of body parts.

2. Paper Wasps

"Polistes dominulus" creates a paper-like nest.

Their reddish antennae, flight habits and nest-building styles set Paper Wasps apart from Yellowjackets, according to the Michigan State University Extension (MSUE).

Paper Wasps fly with their legs hanging down from their bodies. Their antennae have russet-colored tips. In contrast, Yellowjackets have solid black antennae and keep their legs tucked up against their bodies when they fly.

According to MSUE, Paper Wasps will make their nest anywhere—many times in the eaves of houses. A single layer of paper-like cells provides all the shelter these wasps need.

Most Paper Wasp stings occur when people accidentally disturb the nest, and both insects and human are surprised. The European Paper Wasp seems to be edging out other species.

The Cicada Killer Wasp

The Cicada Killer Wasp

3. Cicada Killers

"Sphecius speciosus" feeds its young with paralyzed cicadas

The Cicada Killer Wasp nests directly in the ground and lives a solitary life compared to other species of wasps. According to the MSUE, this wasp has a rusty reddish color tone throughout its body.

It gained its common name because of the way it feeds its young. After egg-laying, it stings and paralyzes a cicada, and drags it home to feed its larvae when they hatch.

The MSUE further explains that every brood cell gets at least one cicada. Cells containing female eggs get two. Because the wasps prefer to nest in areas with sparse vegetation, fertilizing and watering of lawn and yard are usually enough to deter any infestations.

Please do not confuse these wasps with Murder Wasps or "Killer Wasps." The Cicada Killer Wasp may appear to be very large, but it is not a threat to humans.

MSU recommends that people DO NOT KILL this mild native wasp.

The Bald Faced Hornet

The Bald Faced Hornet

4. Bald-Faced Hornets

"Dolichovespula maculata" builds hive-like hanging nests.

The Bald-Faced Hornet has a dramatic “pale-black-pale” marked face. While technically a Yellowjacket, this wasp also bears some similarity to Paper Wasps in the area of nest building.

It makes a paper-like nest; however, its nests have many layers and a variegated grey sheath. Some can be as large as a football, according to Michigan State University’s Agricultural Extension’s “Cyberbee” resource site. The nests are most often located in trees and bushes, and rarely in house structures.

This species tends to prey most upon a variety of other pest insects, which makes it a beneficial addition to gardens and in agriculture. Unless they are near the home or allergies are an issue, these wasps are best simply left alone.

The Wood Wasp

The Wood Wasp

5. Wood Wasps

"Sirex noctilio" invaded Michigan in 2007

The Wood Wasp bores into the trunks of dead or dying trees. It can become an invasive pest, causing the destruction of natural habitat.

According to the USDA, It is possible that the insects trapped and identified in Michigan may have migrated from Ontario.

In time, biological controls can be effective against this species, if they do not have unintended consequences. For more about invasive species, and how wasps can help, see the references.

How to Identify Wasps and Bees in Michigan

Michigan's Native Wasps Are Valuable

Michigan's wasps seem to suffer from a serious PR problem. They are frequently confused with bees in the garden, are greeted with screams of terror by children at the lakeside, and are mercilessly hunted by urban exterminators.

In truth, while wasps may appear threatening to humans, they are integral to the Great Lakes ecosystem. They perform the valuable function of reducing pests, as Michigan State University's Agricultural Extension explains.

References

  • Cicada Killer Wasp, European Paper Wasps; Yellowjackets; Bald-Faced Hornets. Michigan State University Extension, 2008-2010. Accessed February 22, 2020.
  • Great Lakes Researchers Mobilize Wasps to Combat Emerald Ash Borer. Rachael Gleason, Great Lakes Echo. Accessed February 22, 2020.
  • Pictorial Checklist of the Social Wasps (Vespinae and Polistinae) of Michigan. Mark O'Brien, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, Ann Arbor, Michigan. Accessed February 22, 2020.
  • The Sphecid Wasps of Michigan. Mark O'Brien, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. Accessed February 22, 2020.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Jule Romans

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