Yellow Jacket vs. Paper Wasp: The 7 Key Differences

Written by Emily Wolfel
Updated: September 13, 2022
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Key Points

  • It can be difficult to tell apart yellow jackets and paper wasps, but they have slight differences in their body shape, size, and coloring that distinguish them from one another.
  • The paper wasp is larger than a yellow jacket and has a long, slender body.
  • Yellow jackets have small, plump bodies, yellow-dominant coloring, and aggressive personalities.

Yellow jackets and paper wasps are incredibly similar wasps, and it’s difficult for the average person to tell them apart. They’re both yellow and black with thin bodies, slender wings, and similar behaviors. These wasps are both omnivores that hunt insects and eat plant nectar. They’re social, short-lived insects.

However, they do have their differences as well: yellow jackets are more likely to approach people, both to steal food and to sting. Their bodies and coloration are slightly different, if you can get close enough to check! They also nest differently.

In this article, we’ll discuss all there is to know when it comes to the differences between yellow jackets and paper wasps.

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Comparing Yellow Jacket vs Paper Wasp

Yellow Jacket vs. Paper Wasp - Yellow Jacket Isolated
A close up of a yellow jacket


When you view photos of these insects side by side, it’s quite easy to tell the difference between them. Unfortunately, wasps don’t tend to sit in place right beside another species—making it more difficult to know what you are dealing with.

The following information can be useful for identification, but never approach a paper wasp or yellow jacket when trying to tell them apart.

Yellow jackets can be quite aggressive, and sometimes sting unprovoked—it’s better to watch out for your own safety first!

Yellow jacket vs. paper wasp - paper wasp close up
A close up of a paper wasp


The 7 key Differences Between Paper Wasps and Yellow Jackets

1.     The Paper Wasp is Larger

Paper wasps are larger than yellow jackets. Paper wasps have long, slender bodies, while yellow jackets are smaller and slightly plumper. Both wasps have a clearly defined head, mesosoma and metosoma. These are the three “sections” of their bodies.

2.     Yellow Jackets have Darker Wings

Yellow jackets have thin, rounded, dark wings. They’re translucent, but with dark brown veins running throughout. Paper wasps have thin, pointed, translucent wings. The veins on these wasps’ wings are a yellow-orange color.

3.     The Wasps are Slightly Different in Color

Paper wasps have a black base with yellow stripes and spots on their bodies. Their legs are black at the base, and an orange-yellow color at the bottoms. Their antenna are similar, with black at the bottom and orange at the top.

Yellow jackets are the opposite: their bodies are mostly yellow with black patterns.  Their legs are mostly yellow, and their antenna are entirely black.

4.     You Can See Paper Wasps’ Legs When They Fly

Paper wasps dangle their legs in flight. Yellow jackets, on the other hand, tuck their legs up as they fly, so you’re much less likely to spot them. These behaviors are just characteristics of the type of bees they are (polistines and vespines respectively), since there is no apparent benefit to flying with their legs tucked in versus dangling.

Remember: If you can see the insect’s legs, it’s most likely a paper wasp!

5.     Yellow Jackets Nest Underground

Yellow jackets have discrete nests underground. This species is very territorial and will attack anything they perceive as a threat to their home. So if you step on their nest, a yellow jacket—or a swarm if you’re unlucky—may fly out to defend their territory.

Paper wasps nest above ground, typically on structures. Their nests are shaped like honeycombs and are made from wooden materials that the wasps chew up (sometimes from your house, garage, or other wooden structures on your property). While paper wasps are generally mild tempered and slow to sting, their nests are the exception. They are territorial of their nests and will attack if it is disturbed in any way.

6.     Paper Wasps are More Likely to be Found in the Garden

Paper wasps are omnivores. Their diets consist of insects and plant nectar. They’re most likely to hang around your garden, hunting other insects and buzzing around your flowers. They’re beneficial to the garden too, because they help to kill pests like caterpillars.

Yellow jackets eat a similar diet of insects, nectar, and fruit. They are attracted to meat and sweet smells, and might be found buzzing around your picnic table at the local park.

They don’t mind trying to steal food!

7.     Yellow Jackets are Aggressive

Like we talked about above, Yellow jackets are prone to territorial behavior. If you’re nearby their nest or happen to step above it, they’re likely to swarm and sting.

Yellow jackets have also been known to sting unprovoked.

Paper wasps can sting, but they aren’t aggressive wasps. They’re most likely to sting when provoked, such as when you mess with their nest.

Yellow Jacket vs. Paper Wasp Comparison

Below you’ll find a summary of the seven common traits of paper wasps and yellow jackets, as well as how the two species differ.

Paper Wasp Yellow Jacket 
Color Black and yellow, but more blackBlack and yellow, but more yellow
WingsLight and highly translucentDark and slightly translucent
Nest Above ground, shaped like a honeycombUnderground
Body Large, thin bodySmall, plump body
FlightDangled legs when flyingTucked legs when flying

Up Next…

Ready to learn more? Check out these articles next!

How Many Bees Are In The World? – Learn about the different types of bees found all over the world.

What Would Happen If Bees Went Extinct? – Find out what the world would be like without bees.

Are Bumble Bees Dangerous? – Learn all about bumble bees behavior and if they are aggressive.

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About the Author

Emily is an editor and content marketing specialist of five years. She grew up in rural Pennsylvania where you can regularly encounter anything from elk to black bears to river otters. Over the years, she raised livestock animals, small animals, dogs, cats, and birds, which is where she learned most of what she knows about various animals and what allowed her to work as a dog groomer and manager of a specialty pet store. She now has three rescue cats and two high-needs Pomeranian mixes to take up her love and attention.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are Either Paper Wasps or Yellow Jackets Dangerous to Humans?

Both of these insects can and will sting if threatened. However, only the yellow jacket will sting unprovoked.

Yellow jackets are also territorial and quick to react—you might not see a sting coming if you accidentally walk near their underground nest.

Paper wasps are beneficial insects, especially around the garden. They’re not typically dangerous to humans, and they kill garden pests which keeps plants healthier!



What do I do if I’m Stung by a Wasp?

Most people will be just fine after a wasp sting. However, people who are allergic should seek immediate medical attention. You should also visit the doctor if you were stung by multiple wasps at once.

Every person who is stung should wash the wound as soon as possible. Apply ice and take an anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen, to reduce swelling.

Watch your sting for signs of infection in the days following the sting.

If you notice excessive redness, swelling, or other symptoms, contact your doctor.

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