Many kinds of wasps make their homes in Georgia. They range from native species such as the cicada killer to invasive species such as the European hornet. Wasps are an important part of the food chain, but their ability to sting and tendency to defend their nests vigorously can lead to painful altercations between wasps and humans. Man-made structures provide ideal nesting sites for several wasp species, and wasp nests are common sights during Georgia's warm summer months.
Accidentally introduced to North America during the 1800s, European hornets are widespread in Georgia. The state is also within the native range of the bald-faced hornet which, as the University of Georgia Extension points out, is technically a type of yellow jacket.
The European hornet is large -- often over 1 inch long -- and has a brown head and thorax, or middle section, with a black-and-yellow-striped abdomen. The bald-faced hornet is predominately black with white or pale-yellow markings.
Both species build papery, football-shaped nests in tree branches and occasionally beneath overhanging eaves of buildings. They make their nests larger as the warm season progresses, but the majority of the hornets die with the arrival of cold weather. Both European and bald-faced hornets give painful stings and will violently defend their nests if disturbed. If a European hornet nest is near a house, the University of Georgia Extension recommends contacting a pest management professional to remove or treat it rather than attempting to do so yourself.
Yellow jackets are similar in appearance to European hornets, but they usually can be identified by their smaller length -- about 1/2 inch. A yellow jacket's characteristic markings include a black-and-yellow-striped pattern on its abdomen; the pattern differs among the adult males, adult females and the queen. Yellow jackets sometimes build nests inside hollow trees, logs and various abandoned man-made structures, but they most commonly nest underground, often in the abandoned burrows of other animals.
Their ground-dwelling nature makes them simple to stumble upon by accident. When disturbed, yellow jackets defend their nests in great numbers and with painful stings.
If you discover a yellow jacket nest in a high-traffic area and want to remove it yourself, then do so in the evening when yellow jacket activity is minimal, and wear a hat, goggles, socks, closed-toe shoes and thick clothing that protects your skin. Don't use a flashlight because light draws yellow jackets. The University of Georgia recommends using a jet-aerosol spray insecticide that knocks down the insects fast. Direct the nozzle of the insecticide's spray can directly into the nest's entrance.
Georgia is home to numerous paper wasp species. They vary in appearance and aggressiveness but are easily identified by their nests, which are paperlike, open-faced and have varying numbers of individual cells in a honeycomb pattern. Paper wasps build their nests from spring through summer in Georgia, after which all but a few queens die. The surviving queens start new nests the following year.
Paper wasps often nest beneath the overhanging eaves of porches as well as sheds and other buildings, making them among the most commonly encountered wasps by Georgia residents. They are less hostile than hornets or yellow jackets but possess painful stings and will defend their nests when threatened.
Paper wasps are essential insect predators, especially in gardens. So the best practice is to leave them alone if possible. If you need to remove a paper wasp nest, then knock it down with a long pole early in spring while the nest is small and has few wasps; an alternative is to spray the nest with an insecticide similar to the kind used for yellow jackets.
Cicada Killer Wasps
Cicada killer wasps are the largest wasps in Georgia. Ranging from 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length, they are predominantly black or rusty brown with yellow bands on their abdomens. Despite their intimidating appearance and somewhat threatening name, cicada killers are among the Georgia wasps least dangerous to humans. They usually appear in July but are active for only a few weeks, vanishing by mid-August in the majority of the state.
Unlike many other wasp species, cicada killers are solitary. Each female digs a small, underground burrow in which it lays an egg on a cicada it killed. The wasp larvae hatches from the egg, feeds on the cicada and remains in the burrow until spring.
Cicada killers sometimes nest in bare patches of lawns, and the females may sting if their nests are disturbed, but these wasps do not swarm in great numbers as social wasps do. Male cicada killers have no ability to sting and are harmless.