Wasps are an odd type of insect.
Most wasps that you see during the summer come from only two families of insects. They are social, hunt, and resemble bees.
In addition to the most familiar wasps, there are 61 more families. Most of these species are solitary and parasite-like. They are also tiny, growing less than 10 mm from head to tail. For comparison, that is 1 cm or ⅖ of an inch.
You probably see far more types of wasps every day than you know. But to notice them, you need to know what to look for.
Here is a guide on the types of wasps. The descriptions use one family to represent each of the 18 superfamilies. Then the article adds more details about natural history and fun facts about wasps.
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Types and Classifications: The Different Kinds of Wasps Variaties
Wasps share the order Hymenoptera with sawflies, bees, and ants.
If you look at the tree graphic biologists use to classify plants and animals, wasps have an uncommon situation. Their branch isn’t all theirs. It ignores two of its smaller branches, a case scientists call paraphyly.
That is what wasps are to bees and ants. The three make up the suborder Apocrita. But within that, ants and bees are two families while wasps have 18 families.
Let’s start with some details.
The crown wasp family got their name from the shape of their head. A shelf circles around hte head, protruding above the eyes, appearing like a crown. They are one of only two families with this.
Stephanides are ancient. They remain from the earliest stages of history when wasps, bees, and ants became a group.
Stephanides are small. averaging 5 to 19 mm, making them difficult to find. But they can be found in pine forests. There they can find their favorite hosts, jewel beetles, wood-boring beetles, and longhorn beetles.
Crown wasps are members of the superfamily Stephanoidea and have 345 species globally. Scientists refer to their worldwide range as “cosmopolitan.”
Despite being incredibly rare, the brightly-colored Trigonalid wasps live worldwide. They have more than 90 species and are the sole family in the Trigonalidae superfamily.
Trigonalids have an unusual, hyperparasitic life history.
Without other larvae to consume, the Trigonalid young will fail to grow.
- The females lay thousands of eggs in or on leaf edges for caterpillars to eat.
- The eggs hatch inside of the host.
- The larvae may eat the host or each other. They may also wait.
- Social wasp species, vespids, will catch the caterpillar and serve it to their young. Then the Trigonalids will eat the vespid larvae.
This strategy is unique in that the host must eat the eggs. Even rarer, that grazing host is often an intermediate host.
The representatives of the Evanioidea superfamily, Evaniidae, go by many names. They are often called ensign wasps. But they also go by hatchet wasps and cockroach egg parasitoid wasps. “Hatchet” refers to the body shape, while the other name refers to their favorite host.
Across the world, other than at the poles, scientists have discovered over 400 species. Most species prefer to live in forests or urban buildings.
Mothers inject one egg into each egg case, ootheca, of cockroaches. Sometimes that case is still carried by the parent cockroach. Then the wasp larvae hatch and eat the cockroach eggs. If any other wasp larvae happen to be in the same egg case, the first to hatch will eat the other.
And while the young eat cockroach larvae, adults drink nectar from flowers.
The 450 known and 1,000 estimated Megaspilid species are fond of soil. They are one of two families within the superfamily, Ceraphronoidea, and the other is just as poorly studied.
The genus with the most species, Dendrocerus, has antennae with many extensions that look almost like feathers.
Some wasps have spurs on the tibia, the “shin.” Megaspilids have forked spurs on their front two tibia and single spurs on their middle two tibias.
Megaspilid wings have a stigma, a small solid-colored spot on the leading side of the wing. Biologists are uncertain what function they serve, but they set this family apart from their close relations. And yet, some Megaspilids lack wings.
Ichneumonidae is one of the most diverse families in Hymenoptera, the order that includes wasps, bees, and ants. It is in the superfamily Ichneumonoidea, has over 25,000 described species, and could have as many as 100,000 species worldwide.
They grow to 3 to 40 mm long, and their colors can be anywhere from bright yellow to black. Unlike most wasps, this family’s ovipositors are only for depositing eggs and never stinging. However, venom flows with the eggs into the host.
Ichneumonids like to use any non-adult stage of many insects and spiders as hosts. Unlike the less populous families mentioned so far, ichneumonids have influence. They regulate the numbers of moths, beetles, and other wasps in natural and agricultural environments.
If you have a lot of oak trees where you live, you may have noticed odd shaped growths on tree leaves.
These growths come from gall wasps eggs that induce the plant to grow a nest. Some species, also known as inquilines, will freeload with other gall species. The young remain safe in the gall until they eat it.
Gall wasps dominate the Cynipoidea superfamily with 1,400 species that grow between 1–8 mm long. The galls and the plant hosts tend to be unique to the wasp species, making the wasps easy to identify.
Cynipids often reproduce by parthenogenesis. This strategy is when the females lay viable eggs that do not need fertilization, creating clones or half-clones. Most gall wasps alternate a fertilized generation with a clone generation.
Proctotrupid wasps are 400 species within the Proctotrupoidea superfamily. It used to have more, but insect classification is frequently updated, and most species got sent to Diapriidae. The remaining species after such a change are called relicts.
These wasps are 3 to 15 mm long and live worldwide, but mostly prefer swamps and moist woodlands. Most species use beetle larvae living in soil litter and rotting wood as hosts. Some other species use flies like fungus gnats.
The rest of Proctotrupidae’s former 2,000 species came here. Diapriids belong under a new superfamily, Diaprioidea. Scientists suspect another 2,000 species remain for discovery worldwide.
These wasps grow to 2 to 8 mm. They vary in shape from lacking wings to having wings with far fewer veins than most wasps. Other traits include pronounced sex differences or sexual dimorphism. Males and females can be confused as separate species.
Adults live in forests with plenty of decaying plants and fungi. Most of their hosts are flies, including fungus gnats.
Platygastrid wasps have 4,000 species and belong in the Platygastroidea superfamily. They grow to 1 to 2 mm and resemble black winged ants. Others are wingless and can attack host eggs underwater.
They parasitize gall midges and other flies and beetles. Some subfamilies take the koinobiont approach and let the host continue to grow while the wasp larvae hatch and feed. Fewer families use the idiobiont strategy and stunt the host’s growth and mobility while the parasite larvae eat.
One species, Aphanomerus pusillus, has potential as a biological control in its native range. There, its host, the pandanus planthopper, has gotten out of control. It is destroying populations of native screwpine in coastal New South Wales and Queensland.
Fairy wasps are the smallest known insects in the world. The 1,400 species belong to the Chalcidoidea superfamily. They live in tropical and temperate regions with more diversity in the southern hemisphere.
A few species are aquatic. They use their wings as paddles in ponds and streams. But they struggle to break the water surface tension, so they emerge by climbing plant stems.
How tiny is the smallest known insect? Dicopomorpha echmepterygis grows to 0.139 mm, smaller than a single-celled paramecium. The smallest known flying insect, Kikiki huna,reaches only 0.15 mm.
Most fairy wasps are black, brown, or yellow. Some have wings that resemble feathers, while others have reduced or absent wings. Species living in windy, exposed areas or females that search for host eggs in soil litter will lack full-sized wings.
These wasps within the Chrysidoidea superfamily stand out by color alone. They have vivid metallic colors that earn some of their gemstone-based names.
Chrysidids have 3,000 member species that mostly live in dry climates. Each species favors a narrower habitat like sand surfaces or dead wood.
They use solitary bees and wasps as hosts like what cuckoo birds do. Cuckoos ostracize the young of another animal and have those parents raise the planted offspring. The approach is called kleptoparasitism or brood parasitism.
Cuckoo wasps lay eggs in the host’s nest. The young then hatch and eat the host’s eggs or larvae. After that, the hosts will feed the wasp young. Some species can also create chemicals to mimic the odors of the host.
Vespidae is the wasp you know best. These 5,000 species in the Vespiodea superfamily include notable types like potter wasps, paper wasps, and yellow jackets.
Almost all social species and many solitary ones are in this family. The family also has both pollinators and pest predators.
Social wasps create colonies of a fertile queen and sterile female workers. Colonies often last for only one year. Then they pass the winter under bark or between rocks.
Many species build colonies from dirt and water mixed during construction. Potter wasps are most known for this because their mud homes appear on the sides of buildings and bridges.
Paper wasps and the Vespines like yellowjackets and hornets will fuse plant material, creating a paper-like home. The species in these two subfamilies are all social.
Are velvet ants wasps or ants? These 8,000 species belong to the Pompiloidea superfamily. They grow 6 to 30 mm long, and their females resemble ants.
They lack wings and have white, black, or orange velvet-like hair on their topside.
Velvet ants have some of the most painful wasp stings. Their fur colors warn of how dangerous they are. Yet they only sting as a defense, not on offense. Despite the pain it causes, their venom is not as toxic as bees and ants.
Each species adopted the fur and its warning function independently. Scientists regard the family as the largest Müllerian mimicry complex in the world. All velvet ants are dangerous, and as a group, condition predators to leave them all alone.
Scoliid wasps are 560 species in the Scolioidea superfamily.
One includes the giant scoliid wasp, Megascolia procer. It isone of the world’s longest wasps and has a wingspan of 11 cm. However, the family averages 10 to 50 mm.
Female scoliidae will search for scarabs underground and paralyze them with a sting. They then dig a new chamber next to where they found the beetle and stash it in the new room before laying eggs.
Japanese beetles are a type of scarab that are pests. Scoliidae make effective population control of them.
Scoliids also pollinate many wildflowers. The wasps also get tricked by orchids that resemble wasps. The males try to mate with the flower and end up transporting pollen.
False fairy wasps are the sole family in the Mymarommatoidea superfamily. For a long time, scientists considered them fairy wasps. They have similar traits but likely have evolved those separately.
Scientists know little about false fairy wasps. They are tiny, growing between 0.4 to 0.7 mm. Yet they have been found worldwide, mostly in fossils, and ten known species live today.
Their simple ovipositors suggest that they prefer to disable their hosts and inject wasp eggs inside of host eggs.
Adults live among leaf litter, moss, and bracket fungi low on trees. Because of their size, scientists have to collect them by collecting their hosts.
Mymarommatids may be most related to an extinct family, so they are called “living fossils.”
The 9,000 Crabronid species are members of the Apoidea superfamily. Many of these species used to be in the Sphecidae family until molecular genetics proved how distant their relationships are. Some subfamilies are also considered their own families.
The family takes a different approach to care for their young. The adults deliver prey to a nest and then lay their eggs rather than lay in a roaming host. They also take the cuckoo approach and lay an egg in a host species nest to raise.
Aphid wasps have 1,000 species.
17. Thynnidae – Thynnid wasps
The Thynnids belong in the Thynnoidea superfamily. They specialize in parasitizing beetles, especially those among the 35,000 species of scarabs in the world. Some of those beetles are pests, and the wasps help to limit those populations.
Thynnids grow up to 30 mm. The adults like to eat nectar, and in that process, they help pollinate flowers.
Some females are wingless as they spend most of their lives wandering on the ground where their hosts live. Wingless females will be much smaller than their male counterparts. But winged females will appear almost identical to males.
One notable wasp, Diamma bicolor, has metallic colors, a sting that can cause anaphylaxis in humans, and lives in Australia. It is called a blue ant, despite not being an ant.
Tiphiids once included Thynnids. Molecular genetics labs showed that they evolved similar traits separately. They grow anywhere from 3 to 35 mm and like dryer ecosystems like deserts and grasslands.
Like Thynnids, the 200 species of Tiphid wasps favor using scarab beetles as hosts. Many females lack wings and have their young feed on the beetle rather than eat from inside. The distinction makes Tiphiid and Thynnids ectoparasites, while most wasps are endoparasites.
Males fly at night, so researchers use lights to catch them for museum collections. Few females get collected. Their ant-like forms keep them under the ground, or working under the dark of plant litter lets them be active at different hours.
The core of the body includes the head, mesosoma, and metasoma. The mesosoma refers to the upper torso as a thorax fused with an abdomen segment. The metasoma is the rest of the abdomen. In Between is a narrow waist called a petiole, much like the petiole or stem of a leaf.
Often similar species are distinguished by the number of segments of the antennae or the vein pattern of the wings.
Mother wasps use a tube called an ovipositor. It injects paralysis venom and their eggs where they need to go.
Take a look at images of wasp families. Even to the untrained eye, the proportions of these body parts and the size of the whole wasp vary wildly.
Wasps have a conventional life cycle for insects. They develop from eggs into larvae, then pupa, and finally adults.
What’s distinctive about wasps is the adaptation of the ovipositor for the parasitoid lifestyle. The length of the tube specializes in reaching where the mother lays the eggs. Accessing a host’s nest from outside requires a lengthier probe than a dead host in the open.
The life cycle will also depend on paralysis strategies.
Idiobionts use venom to prevent the host from moving or growing. Koinobionts let the host o continue to grow and develop. The host will die either way weeks later after the larvae eat their fill, pupate, and leave.
In social species, fertilized eggs become females while unfertilized eggs become males.
Wasps are almost universally parasitoids. Wasp larvae eat the insects their mother laid them on or in. Different families and even species within families will use a handful of strategies to feed their young.
The most common approaches are always eating:
- An adult insect that the wasp larvae hatched inside.
- The eggs of the host, from the inside.
- The larvae of the host, from the outside as a nestmate.
Less common diets involve eating:
- An adult insect the wasp larvae hatched on.
- Larvae are fed by a host parent who assumes the wasp larvae are their own.
- Larvae fed by an actual parent.
Adult diets, though, are more diverse. Most like nectar and fruit and will help with pollination. Some hunt spiders and insects, including other wasps.
As insects, wasps attract many animals. Other wasps, many types of spiders, birds, rodents, mantises, and lizards try to eat them. Fish may target aquatic wasps. If they think they can get away with it, predators will try. Hunting wasps is about trying, not having a reliable meal.
Roadrunners are the only predators of one of the longest wasps in the world, tarantula hawk wasps. Buzzards have tried to eat hornets.
The smaller, non-stinging wasps may have many predators. These wasps are so minute that scientists have yet to know their complete ecology, including predators. But likely, whatever can find them will try to eat them.
Wasps live anywhere and everywhere, including the poles. Some specialize in swampy and forested areas, while others stick to deserts.
They may dwell on the ground or fly in the open. Thynnids and Tiphiids have females that live on the ground surface and males that fly in the open.
Most families have a global range. Individual species can be widespread as well, while others will specialize. Some hornets have become invasive pests in new areas. But others, like ichneumonids, help to control invasive species.
Ecological Roles of Wasps: Types of Parasitism
Most wasps are parasitoids.
Parasitoids lay eggs on or inside other animals for their young to later eat. They are not parasites because parasites don’t kill their host. Parasitoids always kill, but with more steps than predation.
Sometimes wasps exercise different types of parasitism.
Kleptoparasitism happens when the wasp mother lays her egg into another insect’s nest.
Often, the wasp larvae eat the other young. Then the host parents provide food, thinking the living larvae are their own. For good measure, some wasps grow enough to eat the host parent.
Hyperparasitism is another type of parasitism. This distinction refers to when a wasp lays her young in another parasite or their nest. Often this involves the same species.
Ecological Roles of Wasps: Predation and Pollination
Vespids include a few predatory wasps. When they hunt, they kill and eat. Then many will return to the nest to regurgitate the food for their larvae.
A few wasps contribute to pollination. They like nectar, but they lack the hairs that hold pollen for bees. They also lack the pollen basket bees have. But some families contribute. One is even called fig wasps, and they are the sole pollinators of 1,000 species of fig trees.
Many wasps use aposematic coloration and mimicry to deter predators.
Aposematic coloration is when an animal has bright colors that are unusual to its type, signaling a warning to the predator.
Velvet ants, which are wasps despite their name, make a good example. Some of those species have bright fur on their backs and have one of the most painful stings of the insect world.
These wasps also have Müllerian mimicry. This mimicry is when different species imitate another’s’ coloration, and they are all dangerous.
Wasps are good at fending for themselves, so no one practices Batesian mimicry. This mimicry is when a harmless animal mimics a dangerous one to deter predators. Many flies, ants, and beetles use wasps for their Batesian mimicry.
Cultural Symbolism of Wasps
Wasp symbolism comes from the social, Vespid wasps that most people notice. They are organized, communicate, build large homes, and defend their homes without hesitation. These traits represent what lets a community or family survive.
Another association is aggression. Sometimes we may not know what they did to deserve a wasp attack, but a wasp doesn’t care. So we see wasps as a predator to avoid.
When we call another person a wasp, we mean that they are quick to go after what they want, even if it means being nasty.
Many families like ichneumonidae and fairy wasp parasitize pests and invasive species. In natural settings, they limit the population of some invasives so that they fail to outcompete native species. In agriculture, scientists try to encourage wasps to target crop pests more.
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Facts and Statistics about Wasps in Numbers
The largest wasp in the world is the Asian giant hornet. The hornet has a wingspan of 75 mm, or around three inches, and a body length of 45 mm or 1-¾ inches.
The smallest wasps are also the smallest known insects, the fairy wasps. They have been measured as small as 0.139 mm long.
The most common family by the number of species is arguably the most diverse animal family. Ichneumonidae has 25,000 described species with a possible total of 100,000 species if they are all discovered.
The rarest family by the number of species is Vanhorniidae. It has only one, Vanhornia eucnemidarum, discovered in 1909.
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How are bees, ants, and wasps different?
Wasps have smooth and narrower bodies compared to the fuzzy and rounder bee. Wasps are also almost all parasitoids when bees are always pollinators.
Ant differences are unclear without a magnifying glass. Their petioles or waists have two segments, and their antennae have elbows. Bees and wasps have no segments at the petiole and have straight or gently curved antennae.
How are hornets different from wasps?
Hornets are a type of wasp. We tend to talk about them as a distinct category because of how large and aggressive they are, even compared to other dangerous wasps. Hornets are also more likely to cause anaphylactic shock from their stings.
Why are wasps more aggressive in the late summer and fall?
Wasps living in colonies stop producing at this time. The workers usually die while the queen hides over winter. Until then, the workers will be extra protective of the queen. They will hunt more for themselves and want a final sweet meal from fruits or anything humans leave out.