BioKIDS home

Kids' Inquiry of Diverse Species

European paper wasp

Polistes dominula

What do they look like?

European paper wasps are black wasps with yellow markings including rings on their body. They also have spots on their face and body which show information about gender. The spots might also have information about social status and whether they are aggressive. Faces with more black might show dominance and give information about the size of the wasp. European paper wasps have bright reddish-orange antennae. (Buck, et al., 2008a; Buck, et al., 2008b; Buck, et al., February 19, 2008; Green and Field, 2010)

European paper wasps look like Northern paper wasps, but they are smaller, about 2.0 cm long on average. They have 6 legs, a pair of antennae, and a pair of wings. They have an indentation on the side of the middle part of their bodies, and ridges on the front of their abdomens. They are different from closely related species because they fly with their back legs slightly below their bodies. Females are larger than males, and their undersides are black instead of yellow. Front wings are 9.5 to 13.0 mm long in females, and 8.5 to 12.0 mm long in males. (Buck, et al., 2008a; Buck, et al., February 19, 2008; Cranshaw, 2008)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • Average length
    2.0 cm
    0.79 in
  • Range wingspan
    8.5 to 13.0 mm
    0.33 to 0.51 in

Where do they live?

European paper wasps originally lived in the Mediterranean, northern Africa, southern Europe, the Middle East, and eastern China. They were introduced to North America in the 1970s and 1980s. At first, they were mostly found on the East coast of the United States. They have spread into the Midwest and the western and southwestern United States. European paper wasps were introduced to Canada in the 1990s, including Ontario, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia. They have also been introduced to Chile and Argentina and also western Australia. (Cervo, et al., 2000; Jacobs, 2011)

What kind of habitat do they need?

European paper wasps live on land in forests, grasslands, and in the hot and dry chaparral. They live in temperate climates, meaning places where the seasons change. They are found in urban, suburban, and agricultural areas. They tend to be located close to human civilization because they nest in things humans build. They also live in forests and on plants where they can feed and nest. When they are nesting, they choose spaces made by farm machines or things used for recreation. In the winter, pregnant queens stay in protected areas like in the walls of houses or hollow trees. Then, females build nests in these places or somewhere nearby at the beginning of spring. (Buck, et al., February 19, 2008; Jacobs, 2011; Rusina, et al., 2011)

How do they grow?

European paper wasp eggs grow into larvae. Queen and worker wasps collect food for the larvae. The larvae go through a pupa state, and then transform into adults. At the right temperature and with enough food, adults take 40 days to develop into adults. Adults drum with their antennae on the larvae, which determines whether the larvae grow up into workers or founder wasps. (Suryanarayanan, et al., 2011)

How do they reproduce?

European paper wasp colonies have a queen who is head of the colony. The queen mates with more than one male, and is more likely to mate with resident males than transient males. Resident males defend a large tree or other spot for multiple days, while transient males move between defending different places. To choose mates, the queen flies over the territories of the males. She probably chooses a resident male because they are often large and aggressive. After the larvae develop, workers help the foundress female provide food to the other larvae. (Beani and Turillazzi, 1987; Beani, et al., 1992)

Queen European paper wasps are more likely to mate with males that don't share their nest. Males don't treat females differently if they are from the same nest. Females are picky in mating. (Liebert, et al., 2010)

Female European paper wasps mate during the spring and have more than one set offspring. They mate once more in the fall, and store male reproductive cells in their bodies until spring. They spend the winter in houses, walls, or outdoors. In April and May, they start to build nests in places that are dark and protected. They nest in places built by humans more often than northern paper wasps. Females nest alone or in combined nests with other females. Once in a while, females stay in the place where they hibernate until they take over an abandoned nest. Nests are built from papery materials and attached to wood, metal, or rock. At the beginning of the season, females lay eggs in the paper holes of the nest. During the season, worker wasps rebuild the nest and make it bigger. (Cranshaw, 2008; Zanette and Field, 2011)

Females lay eggs in the holes of the nest, which grow into adults in 3 to 4 weeks. The eggs hatch into larvae in 3 to 5 days. Then, the queen wasp feeds them chewed-up caterpillars. The larvae close off the top of a nest cell with silk and change from pupae to adults. As adult wasps develop, they become worker wasps in the colony. By the summer, the colony has several dozen wasps. They help the foundress get food for future larvae and build space in the nest for them. Later on in the season, some of the workers reproduce. Only females survive the winter. (Cranshaw, 2008)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    European paper wasps breed numerous times each year, and have numerous broods.
  • Breeding season
    European paper wasps typically mate in spring, summer and fall.
  • Average gestation period
    3-5 days

Female European paper wasps protect and feed their offspring until after they are able to feed themselves. The eggs develop inside their bodies with yolks, and females keep the eggs in her body until she lays them in a nest. Then, the foundress of the colony feeds her larvae chewed up insects like caterpillars. The first adults become worker wasps who help build the nests and collect food for the next group of young. (Bartelt, 2011)

  • Parental Investment
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents

How long do they live?

Queen European paper wasps live longer than workers because queens are protected by females and hibernate during the winter. Colonies start in late March or April, and can have more than one queen. Only females that reproduce survive the winter, so most European paper wasps live less than one year. Females that reproduce can survive more than one season. (Cranshaw, 2008; Strassmann, et al., 2004)

How do they behave?

European paper wasps are able to fly and walk. They are social wasps that live in large groups called colonies. Each colony has a hierarchy between the queen and workers. There are also separate hierarchies between the working wasps. Workers spend their time moving around the nest, hunting, building up the nest, and sitting on the nest. European paper wasps are active in the day and come back to the nest at night. Males are sometimes aggressive, and their level of aggression is related to the pattern on their face. Males might be more likely to challenge a weaker rival based on the pattern on its face. (Baracchi, et al., 2010; Cranshaw, 2008)

Female queens hibernate during the winter and lay eggs in early spring. Eggs become workers for the colony and the queen. Together, they build and live in a nest. The female foundresses of the colonies visit fewer areas of the nest than the workers do. By the summer, the colony has several dozen wasps. The wasps born first often have higher social status, and all the workers add to the nest as the colony gets bigger. In smaller colonies, the 6 wasps born first have less interaction with highly ranked wasps. In the next season, females usually choose a spot to build a new nest. (Baracchi, et al., 2010; Cranshaw, 2008; Karsai, et al., 1996)

Home Range

Scientists don't know much about the size of the home range of European paper wasps.

How do they communicate with each other?

European paper wasps might not be able to recognize each other as specific individuals. Scientists know this because they are just as aggressive with each other if they have met each other before or not. To figure out if another wasp belongs to their nest or not, they use chemicals on the outside waxy layer of their bodies. (Bruschini, et al., 2011; Sheehan and Tibbetts, 2010)

European paper wasps use touch to communicate dominance. In a behavior called mounting, the dominant wasp drums their antennae on on another wasp's head, and the other wasp lowers its head and antennae. In a behavior called boxing, the wasp uses its front legs to bat at another wasp. They curl up together and the wasp trying to be dominant wraps its body around the other one. European paper wasps also lightly bat the heads of other wasps with their antennae or drum on their bodies apart from struggling for dominance. (Izzo, 2011)

What do they eat?

European paper wasps are omnivores, so they eat animals and plants. They eat insect larvae and caterpillars, as well as aphids, honeydew melon, and nectar from flowers. European paper wasps consume more kinds of insects than northern paper wasps, which only eat caterpillars. (Cervo, et al., 2008)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • fruit
  • nectar

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

European paper wasps look similar to closely related species, so potential predators may have trouble telling different kinds of wasps apart. (Bartelt, 2011)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

European paper wasps help pollinate plants. They also eat insects, especially caterpillars. Where European paper wasps have been introduced, they affect native northern paper wasps. European paper wasps set up their nests before native wasps, so they can increase the size of their colony without a lot of competition. Nesting early also helps them avoid bird predators. European paper wasps eat a bigger variety of insects than native species, which is good for the health of the water. Their success makes it more difficult for native wasps to survive. (Cervo, et al., 2000; Cranshaw, 2008; Jacobs, 2011; Stahlhut, et al., 2006)

Native European paper wasps get infected by parasitic insects that are called parasitoids, such as Endurus argiolus and Xenos vesparum. Adults lay eggs on or inside European paper wasps. They larvae that infect sometimes kill their hosts. In North America, native parasitoids don't recognize European paper wasps as hosts. In Italy and the northeastern United States, European paper wasps can be infected with a bacteria parasite called These North American parasitoids do not generally infect European paper wasps in the United States because they do not recognize them as hosts based on their recent introduction. In Italy and the northeastern United States, European paper wasps can get infected with Wolbachia bacteria. (Cervo, et al., 2000; Jacobs, 2011; Stahlhut, et al., 2006)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • pollinates
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • bacteria (Wolbacia)
  • parasitoid insects (Xenos vesparum)
  • parasitoid wasps (Endurus argiolus)

Do they cause problems?

European paper wasps sting people and other animals who come too close to their nests. They can also be threatened by native wasps. European paper wasps nest in structures or buildings built by humans more often than their closest relatives. This means people kill them with chemicals and get rid of their nests. (Bartelt, 2011; Buck, et al., 2008a)

  • Ways that these animals might be a problem for humans
  • injures humans
    • bites or stings

How do they interact with us?

European paper wasps benefit humans by pollinating plants. They help reduce the number of insects like caterpillars, hornworm larvae, cabbageworms, tent caterpillars, and sawfly larvae like Cimbicidae, Diprionidae, and Tenthredinidae. (Bartelt, 2011; Cranshaw, 2008)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • pollinates crops
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

European paper wasps are not threatened or endangered.


Eliza Stout (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.


Baracchi, D., M. Zaccaroni, R. Cervo, S. Turillazzi. 2010. Home Range Analysis in the Study of Spatial Organization on the Comb in the Paper Wasp Polistes Dominulus. Ethology, 116(7): 579-587. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Bartelt, A. 2011. "Polistes dominula" (On-line). Texas Invasives. Accessed February 23, 2012 at

Beani, L., R. Cervo, C. Lorenzi, S. Turillazzi. 1992. Landmark-Based Mating Systems in Four Polistes Species (Hymenopter: Vespidae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 65.3: 211-217. Accessed March 24, 2012 at ..

Beani, L., S. Turillazzi. 1987. Alternative mating tactics in males of Polistes dominulus (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 22: 257-264. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Bruschini, C., R. Cervo, A. Cini, G. Pieraccini, L. Pontieri, L. Signorotti, S. Turillazzi. 2011. Cuticular hydrocarbons rather than peptides are responsible for nestmate recognition in Polistes dominulus. Chem Senses, 36(8): 715-723. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Buck, M., S. Marshall, D. Cheung. February 19, 2008. "Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification" (On-line). Identification Atlas of the Vespidae (Hymenoptera, Aculeata) of the northeastern Nearctic region. Accessed January 28, 2012 at

Buck, M., S. Marshall, D. Cheung. 2008. Identification Atlas of the Vespidae (Hymenoptera, Aculeata) of the northeastern Nearctic region. Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification. Accessed February 23, 2012 at

Buck, M., S. Marshall, D. Cheung. 2008. Identification Atlas of the Vespidae (Hymenoptera, Aculeata) of the northeastern Nearctic region. Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification, 5: 311-312. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Cervo, R., L. Dapporto, L. Beani, J. Strassmann, S. Turillazzi. 2008. On status badges and quality signals in the paper wasp Polistes dominulus: body size, facial colour patterns and hierarchical rank. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 275: 1189-1196. Accessed February 03, 2012 at

Cervo, R., F. Zacchi, S. Turillazzi. 2000. Polistes dominulus (Hymenoptera, Vespidae) invading North America: some hypotheses for its rapid spread. Insectes Sociaux, 47: 155-157. Accessed February 03, 2012 at

Cranshaw, W. 2008. "European Paper Wasp" (On-line). Colorado State University Extension. Accessed February 03, 2012 at

Cranshaw, W., H. Larsen, R. Zimmerman. 2011. Notes on Fruit Damage by the European Paper Wasp, Polistes dominula (Christ) (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Southwestern Entomologist, 36(1): 103-105. Accessed February 03, 2012 at

Cranshaw, W. 2004. Garden Insects of North America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Green, J., J. Field. 2010. Interpopulation variation in status signalling in the paper wasp Polistes dominulus. Animal Behaviour, 81: 205-209. Accessed February 03, 2012 at

Hesler, L. 2010. Polistes dominula (Christ, 1791) (Hymenoptera: Vespidae: Polistinae) found in South Dakota, U.S.A.. Insecta Mundi- A Journal of World Insect Systematics, 0145: 1-3. Accessed January 31, 2012 at

Izzo, A. 2011. Spotting the top male: sexual selection in a lek-mating paper wasp, Polistes dominulus. Doctor of Philosophy (Ecology and Evolutionary Biology) Dissertation: 1-102. Accessed March 26, 2012 at

Jacobs, S. 2011. European Paper Wasp. Entomological Notes: 1-2. Accessed February 01, 2012 at

Jacobs, S. 2002. "Dominulus or European Paper Wasp" (On-line pdf). Entomological Notes. Accessed February 03, 2012 at

Karsai, I., Z. Pénzes, J. Wenzel. 1996. Dynamics of colony development in Polistes dominulus: a modeling approach. Behavioral Ecology Sociobiology, 39: 97-105. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Leadbeater, E., J. Carruthers, J. Green, N. Rosser, J. Field. 2011. Nest Inheritance is the Missing Source of Direct Fitness in a Primitively Eusocial Insect. Science, 333: 874-876. Accessed March 15, 2012 at

Leadbeater, E., J. Carruthers, J. Green, J. van Heusden, J. Field. 2010. Unrelated Helpers in a Primitively Eusocial Wasp: Is Helping Tailored Towards Direct Fitness?. PLOS One, 5(8). Accessed March 19, 2012 at

Liebert, A., N. Wilson-Rich, C. Johnson, P. Starks. 2010. Sexual interactions and nestmate recognition in invasive populations of Polistes dominulus wasps. Insectes Sociaux, 57: 457-463. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Rusina, L., L. Firman, I. Rusin, C. Starr. 2011. Pulp Partitioning and Worker Specialization in Polistine Wasps (Hymenoptera, Vespidae, Polistinae). Entomological Review, 91.7: 820-827. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Sheehan, M., E. Tibbetts. 2009. Evolution of Identity Signals: Frequency-Dependent Benefits of Distinctive Phenotypes Used for Individual Recognition. Evolution, 63-12: 3106-3113. Accessed February 01, 2012 at

Sheehan, M., E. Tibbetts. 2010. Selection for individual recognition and the evolution of polymorphic identity signals in Polistes paper wasps. European Society for Evolutionary Biology, 23: 570-577. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Stahlhut, J., A. Liebert, P. Starks, L. Dapporto, J. Jaenike. 2006. Wolbachia in the invasive European paper wasp Polistes dominulus. Insectes Sociaux, 53: 269-273. Accessed February 03, 2012 at

Strassmann, J., A. Fortunato, R. Cervo, S. Turillazzi, J. Damon, D. Queller. 2004. The Cost of Queen Loss in the Social Wasp Polistes dominulus (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 77(4): 343-355. Accessed March 15, 2012 at

Suryanarayanan, S., J. Hermanson, R. Jeanne. 2011. A Mechanical Signal Biases Caste Development in a Social Wasp. Current Biology, 21: 1-5. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Theraulaz, G., J. Gervet, B. Thon, M. Pratte, S. Semenoff-Tian-Chanski. 1992. The Dynamics of Colony Organization in the Primitively Eusocial Wasp Polistes dominulus Christ. Ethology: 177-202. Accessed January 31, 2012 at

Theraulaz, G., M. Pratte, J. Gervet. 1990. Behavioural Profiles in Polistes dominulus (Christ) Wasp Societies: A Quantitative Study. BRILL, 113, 3/4: 223-250. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

Tibbetts, E., J. Dale. 2004. A Socially Enforced Signal of Quality in a Paper Wasp. Nature, 432: 218-222. Accessed February 01, 2012 at

Tibbetts, E., O. Skaldina, V. Zhao, A. Toth, M. Skaldin, L. Beani, J. Dale. 2011. Geographic Variation in the Status Signals of Polistes dominulus Paper Wasps. PLOS ONE, 6.12: 1-8. Accessed March 17, 2012 at

Torres, V., T. Montagna, J. Raizer, W. Antonialli- Junior. 2012. Division of labor in colonies of the eusocial wasp, Mischocyttarus consimilis. Journal of Insect Science, 12.21. Accessed March 15, 2012 at

Zanette, L., J. Field. 2011. Founders versus joiners: group formation in the paper wasp Polistes dominulus. Animal Behavior, 82: 699-705. Accessed March 24, 2012 at

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

BioKIDS home  |  Questions?  |  Animal Diversity Web  |  Cybertracker Tools

Stout, E. 2013. "Polistes dominula" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 19, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
Copyright © 2002-2024, The Regents of the University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

University of Michigan