Wasps are insects in the order Hymenoptera, the same order than includes sawflies, ants, and bees. They're most easily recognized by the constricted petiole between their abdomen and thorax which gives them their characteristic "wasp waists."
A lot of folks call us because they have what they believe to be "bees" buzzing around their yards. But most stinging insects in South Carolina are wasps, not bees. In addition, the most aggressive stinging insects in South Carolina, the hornets and yellow jackets, are both wasps, not bees. Honey bees (who are in fact bees) will also attack in great numbers when they believe their colonies are being threatened, but they're a bit more selective about it. They usually won't attack people just for walking past their nests like hornets often do.
Not all wasps sting, however. Some use their stingers mainly to paralyze prey, and others have no stingers at all. For example, male cicada killers completely lack stinger, and female cicada killers use their stingers mainly to paralyze cicadas, not for self-defense.
Some other differences between wasps and bees are that only bees make honey, and that most wasps are not considered significant pollinators. Most wasp species do some pollinating, but not enough that they're considered important as agricultural pollinators.
Lets take a look at some of the wasps most commonly found in the Augusta and Aiken areas.
Baldfaced hornets are large, stocky wasps that are predominantly black or dark blue in color, with white or pale yellow markings. They build oblong-shaped nests made out of paper that appears grey in color from a distance of more than a few feet. The nests are usually pointy at the bottom, where the entrance hole is. They like to build their nests outside, in exposed areas, preferably where they have an open view in all directions. The nests are usually hung from tree limbs or branches of shrubs, but they'll often build them hanging from power lines, soffits, or porch ceilings.
Baldfaced hornets are the most aggressive wasps in South Carolina. They readily attack in great numbers if they even suspect that you might pose a threat to the colony. The problem is that they're neither consistent nor predictable about what, exactly, they consider a threat. One day you can walk past their nest and not be bothered at all, and the next day the whole colony will attack you for doing the exact same thing.
The reason for the baldfaced hornets unpredictability is their sentry system. There are always a few hornets right outside the hole, usually flying around the hole but sometimes resting on the nest (especially in bad weather), keeping a lookout for things that they don't especially like. When they see something that they perceive to be a threat, they signal to the rest of the colony, and the majority of the members rush out and attack that something.
If that something happens to be you, then it is your unlucky day. Hornet stings are intensely painful. In addition, because most of the colony will be involved in an attack and because individual hornets can sting repeatedly, you can suffer hundreds of stings from one attack.
That's a good reason why you shouldn't attempt hornet control yourself. Call us instead. It's what we do.
European hornets are beautifully-colored wasps with burnt-orange and yellow markings. They are slightly less aggressive and more predictable than baldfaced hornets. They're also courteous enough to give would-bee attackers a warning in the form of a very loud, frightening buzz if they get too close to their nests for their comfort. But most of the time you won't need that because they have a downright awful smell to them that most likely will be enough to keep you away.
Unlike baldfaced hornets, European hornets like to build their nests in protected voids. They're not too picky about what kind of void, wither. They're just as gappy in a hollow tree, the wall voids of a house, a roof soffit, or the fender of an abandoned car. When they build nests in homes, the smell can be so overwhelming that the family has to leave until the nest is removed. They also build nests in the ground sometimes, usually in an abandoned animal burrow.
Although they are less likely to attack, when they do, European hornets give it their all. Their stings are intensely painful; and like their baldfaced cousins, European hornets attack as a group. In addition, because their nests are hidden, they're even more difficult to treat than baldfaced hornets are. This is another insect-control job that you shouldn't try yourself.
"Yellow jackets" is both the common name of a specific group of wasps, and a catch-all term for a wide variety of stinging insects that happen to have some yellow in their coloration. Most of the wasps in South Carolina that are called "yellow jackets" are various wasps in the genus Vespula, and are commonly referred to as "vespids." The one in the picture here is the European or German Yellow Jacket, Vespula germanica.
What yellow jackets seem to value most in a nest location is seclusion. They usually build their nests in protected voids including attics, wall and ceiling voids, soffits, the spaces in rock walls, abandoned cars, or the insides of cinder blocks. Their nests are round in shape if they're built in large areas like attics, but when built in smaller voids like cinder blocks or rock walls, the nests conform to the shape of the void.
In terms of aggressiveness, yellow jackets are less aggressive than hornets, but they're very defensive of the areas near their nests. If you get too close, they will attack as a group, and their stings are very painful. But they rarely sting while they're on foraging missions unless you swat at them.
One of the things that complicates yellow jacket treatment is that yellow jackets often build their nests quite a ways from the entry holes, and then travel inside the house through the wall and ceiling voids or behind the facia of brick houses to get to and from the nests. If you treat the entrance holes you won't kill the nest. They're just find another way out -- and that way out may be through the living area of your home.
So resist the temptation to shoot some insecticide at the entry hole. You'll just annoy the wasps, and that's something you don't want to do.
"Paper wasps" is a common name by which several species of wasps are known, most of them in the genus Polistes. What they all have in common is that they build open or semi-enclosed paper nests that they attach to houses or other surfaces, shielded on top from the rain, but otherwise exposed. They're commonly found around door and window frames, under soffits, or under porch ceilings.
Most paper wasps aren't at all aggressive. They'll pretty much leave you alone if you leave them alone. Unless you do something like reach out toward their nests in a threatening way, they're unlikely to sting. Most species can sting if they want to, however, and the stings can be painful.
There are no true "social" paper wasps in the sense of their actually needing a colony and a social structure. But it's not uncommon for small groups of female social wasps to build nests close to each other. Some have also been observed tending each others' young, sort of like baby-sitting; but there is no formal division of labor. It seems more happenstance. Some entomologists speculate that they're in the process of evolving into social wasps.
Cicada killers (sometimes called "lawn wasps") are large, yellow-and-black wasps that fly very aggressively and make a very loud buzzing noise. If you didn't know better, you'd be afraid of them. But the males completely lack stingers; and the females mainly use their stingers to paralyze cicadas, not as weapons of self-defense.
The reason why cicada killers kill cicadas is not for the sheer joy of the hunt. They use them to provision nests for their young. The females fly around looking for cicadas, and upon finding one, paralyze it and drag it down into a hole in the ground. Then they lay an egg on the cicada. When the egg hatches, the larval cicada killer eats the cicada.
Cicada killers are basically harmless (unless, of course you're a cicada, in which case not so much). Despite their size, aggressive flight, and loud buzzing, the males are incapable of stinging, and the females almost never do unless you do something really rude like stick your finger in their nest holes. And really, who can blame them in that case?
The problem is that cicada killers really make a mess of lawns with their holes. In addition, if left untreated, the number of cicada killers -- and holes -- will increase every year. Their aggressive flight and intimidating buzzing terrify people, making the area unsuitable for human use. Although the sting risk is almost zero, even if you know that, cicada killers are annoying as all get out.
Digger bees are not wasps. They're actually true bees; but for some reason, a lot of folks refer to them as digger wasps. Digger bees find that quite offensive and have asked me to ask you not to do that any more.
The reason digger bees dig is because they build nests underground. Their life cycle isn't as dramatic as that of cicada killers, but they do cause considerable damage to lawns, as this video illustrates.
The sheer number of digger bees that can be in a patch of lawn makes them very intimidating. People will be afraid to walk in the ares or use it for recreational purposes. But digger bees are relatively passive insects and don't sting very often. They do sting once in a while, however; so people who are allergic to stings are at risk around them.
As is the case with cicada killers, the population of digger bees in an area will increase with every passing year if they are not treated.
Stinging Insect Gallery
Here are some pictures of stinging insect work we've done in and around the Columbia and Aiken areas.
Yellow jackets nest between two seat cushions
European hornet on wall of a house in Columbia
Inside of hornets nest after it was treated
European hornet nest in early stage contruction
Red paper wasps on the outside of a barn
Hornets nest removed from a house in Aiken
Paper wasps nest on a house in Aiken SC
Yellow jacket wasps tending a nest
Chris S. Removing a Hornets' Nest from a House
Hornets nest removed from a house in Columbia
Hornets nest with sentries on duty by entry hole
Close-up of hornets nest showing sentries