Beware of The Top 7 Largest Wasps Buzzing Around America

European paper wasp, Gallische Feldwespe (Polistes dominulus)
© scubaluna/Shutterstock.com

Written by Samantha Stanich

Updated: October 8, 2023

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Close-up of a live Yellow Jacket Wasp

Yellow jackets are the common name of a particular type of wasp.

©Kletr/Shutterstock.com

Spheksophobia, or the fear of wasps, usually stems from the fear of getting stung. And for good reason! The insects’ vicious sting causes searing pain, and some species pack so much venom in their elongated bodies that multiple stings can kill a person! Also, unlike some species that sting and die, most wasps have smooth stingers. This means they can penetrate and retract, stinging multiple times. Even though most people’s first instinct is to kill these flying pests, they serve an important role in the ecosystem. They pollinate flowers and trees and help to reduce the populations of common pests and other invasive species. So, though their sting is scary and their buzzing annoying, there is more to them than meets the eye. But how big are the largest wasps in America? Well, some North American wasps can be as wide as a credit card!

Here are some of the biggest wasps across America!

Here are the top seven wasps that are found in America!

1. Great Black Wasps

Largest Wasps - Great Black Wasp

The great black wasp’s sting poses little threat to humans.

©Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock.com

The name of this wasp really says it all. The great black wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus) is a large species of wasp with a jet-black body and bluish-purple wings. They can grow up to 1.5 inches long which is about the length of a safety pin. Most great black wasps average between .08-1.4 inches long, so there are some that are so “great.” Also, as one of the largest wasps in America, the female great black wasps are usually the bigger sex.

Great black wasps are a species of digger wasp and are native throughout the U.S. The wasps commonly buzz around in the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Long Island, Michigan, and Massachusetts. Its scientific name indicates alludes to its American origins, as the word pensylvanicus translates to “native to Pennsylvania.” The great black wasp’s sting, like any wasp, is painful, but they aren’t a threat to humans.

The insects’ sting is harmful to katydids or also known as bush crickets. It paralyzes the long-horned grasshoppers so the wasp can lay their egg on it. And though the great black wasps really only sting if it is highly provoked, it can be difficult to watch out for their nests. The nests are underground and often overlooked since they are small and isolated. However, milkweed, goldenrod, thoroughworts, and sweet clover attract the wasps. They are actually considered beneficial pollinators of several species of milkweed plants. So, if you see adult wasps feeding on the nectar of flowers or these plants, their nests are not far away!

2. Long-Tailed Giant Ichneumonid Wasp

The female long-tailed giant ichneumon has a long ovipositor through which they lay eggs.

©Seney Natural History Association, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

The long-tailed giant Ichneumonid wasp (Megarhyssa macrurus) gets its scientific name from the Greek words makrós, meaning “long,” and oùrá, meaning “tail.” The asp is one of the largest species in the Ichneumonidae family, and females can grow up to two inches in length. This is the average width of a pop-can top. The female wasps’ ovipositor, the organ through which they lay their eggs, can each four inches long. So, really a long-tailed giant Ichneumonid wasp can total almost half a foot!

The wasp doesn’t don the black and yellow bee attire but instead is reddish-brown with black and yellow-orange stripes. Their wings appear transparent, and they actually don’t sting at all! They are actually beneficial to humans instead of harmful! The wasps control insects that are considered pests such as tomato hornworms, boll weevils, and wood borers.

The long-tailed giant Ichneumonid wasps are found in wooden areas throughout North America, especially the eastern half and near the Great Lakes. The wasp stays away from arid and hot desert regions as well as scarcely treed central plains.

3. Cicada Killer

Cicada Killer

The wasps’ larvae sustain themselves by feeding on cicadas and other insects.

©samray/Shutterstock.com

Cicada killers are one of the largest wasps in the United States. Also known as the cicada hawk, (Sphecius specious) it can grow up to two inches in length which is about the length of a paper clip. However, the wasps’ size can vary greatly, ranging from 0.6 to two inches long. Reddish hair and brownish wings cover its long, black-striped body.

Though they have a “killer” name, they actually pose no threat to humans and rarely attack people. If the wasp does sting you, their sting is less painful than other venomous species. However, people usually encounter the male cicada killer. Males have no stinger, making them even more harmless.

Cicada killers live throughout the eastern and central United States. Different species live in different states. People see the eastern cicada killer in flyover states from South Dakota to New Mexico, down to Florida, and all along the Eastcoast. They find the western cicada killer in western states from Texas to California and north to Nebraska and Washington.

4. Tarantula Hawk

tarantula hawk eating nectar

Few animals prey on tarantula hawks because of their large stinger.

©iStock.com/Rainbohm

The tarantula hawk is arguably the largest wasp in the world considering it is a spider wasp that preys on tarantulas, which are not small spiders! Many species frequently measure over two inches long. However, Pulszkyi’s tarantula hawks (Pepsis pulszky) are easily the biggest of them all. They can grow up to 2.7 inches long, with a wingspan of 4.5 inches in length. The frighteningly large wasp is also intimidating visually. They are typically a dark, blue-black color with rust-colored wings.

Even with their size and scary appearance, these wasps are also not a threat to humans and rarely attack. However, if you do get stung by one, the sting is among one of the most painful insect stings. But thankfully it only lasts about five minutes and isn’t deadly.

Tarantula hawks are found in every continent except Europe and Antarctica. The wasps buzz around the deserts of the southwest in the United States. People see the insects on the South Rim and inside the Grand Canyon in Arizona. This is because it is where their prey, tarantulas, live.

5. European Hornet

Largest Wasps - European Hornet

Light often attracts European hornets.

©Rytis Bernotas/Shutterstock.com

Don’t let the name fool you! The European hornet (Vespa crabro) gets its common name from its introduction from Europe into the New York area in the 1800s. It is the largest true hornet in North America, making it one of the country’s largest wasps. This is because hornets are very large wasps, but not every wasp is a hornet. On average, busy workers grow to about one inch in length. But queen European hornets can grow up to 1.37 inches long which is a bit short than your average battery.

Americans can see the brown and yellow striped hornet with its reddish-orange wings in forests and adjacent areas. The hornets reside around the eastern seaboard to the eastern Dakotas, south through Iowa and Illinois to New Orleans.

Once again, the insects tend to avoid people. But the European hornet turns aggressive if something threatens their nests. Also, if humans get too close to their food sources, which only happens with fruit and other high-sugar foods since the insect is mainly carnivorous. It eats beetles, wasps, moths, mantises, and dragonflies!

6. Great Golden Digger

Great Golden Digger Wasp

Wasps are attracted to floral scents.

©Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock.com

The fascinating creature known as the great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus) gets its name from the golden baby hairs on its head and thorax. It also likes to dig burrows in the sand. The non-aggressive species can reach up to 1.5 inches in length. And like other wasps, the females measure bigger than males.

And once again, they don’t show aggression toward humans. Gardeners actually welcome the wasps because they aerate the soil with their tunnels. They also are a great form of pest control as they capture and paralyze katydids and crickets.

This large wasp is found throughout the United States. Though it does prefer fields and other grassy, rather open areas like fields or prairies. The insects like to build their nest in sandy soils. If you want to catch a glimpse of a digger wasp, you will have the best luck looking for flowers around those areas.

7. Asian Giant Hornet

Vespa mandarinia japonica1

The IUCN lists the

Asian giant hornet

as threatened due to habitat loss caused by deforestation. 

©KENPEI / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Also known as the terrifying “murder hornet,” the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) is the world’s largest hornet. It can grow up to 2.2 inches long with a wingspan of over three inches. Their size and color make them easily recognizable among the thousand species of wasps. Their distinctive orange head and brown body give people a heads up on avoiding their venomous sting. The hornets’ sinister nickname comes from their sting. It is deadly enough to kill a person given the right dosage.

Confirmed sightings in North America in the past few years indicate the Asian giant hornets’ territory is expanding. In December 2019, the first record of the species was recorded by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. They confirmed a dead specimen in Washington. At this time, no Asian giant hornets have been sighted outside of Washington state. They build their nests underground in forested and low mountainous areas.

Summary Of the Largest Wasps in America

WaspSizeLocation
European HornetWorkers grow to 1 inch, queens grow to 1.37 inchesEastern seaboard, west to the eastern Dakotas, and south through Iowa, and Illinois to New Orleans
Great Golden DiggerCan reach up to 1.5 inches in length, females are larger than malesThroughout the U.S.
Great Black WaspCan grow to 1.5 inches, most average between 0.8-1.4 inches. Females are larger than malesPennsylvania, Wisconsin, Long Island, Michigan, and Massachusetts
Long-Tailed Giant Ichneumonid WaspFemales can grow up to 2 inchesThe eastern half of U.S., Great Lakes, and wooden areas
Cicada KillerSizes vary greatly, ranging from 0.6-2.0 inches longThroughout the U.S.
Asian Giant HornetCan grow up to 2.2 inches long, and their wingspan measures over 3 inchesWashington
Tarantula HawkCan grow up to 2.7 inches long, with a wingspan of 4.5 inches in lengthDeserts of the southwest, Grand Canyon, Arizona


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