Yellow Jacket vs. Paper Wasp: The 7 Key Differences

Written by Emily Wolfel
Updated: October 30, 2023
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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

Bonus: What Flies Tend to Bite or Sting Humans?


Horseflies are aggressive stinging flies that have been known to target and chase humans as well as animals, delivering a painful bite.


While stinging bees like the yellow jacket tend to attract the focus of humans as stinging bugs to fear, there are certain flies that can bite or sting. While they are typically not dangerous, they can certainly cause pain. Here are five stinging or biting flies to be aware of.

  • Horse Flies Horse flies are not only intimidating for their size–from ¾ to 1 ¼ inches long–but they are aggressive and can exact painful bites on humans. While they don’t usually carry diseases, their bites can cause allergic reactions in some people. This type of fly will repeatedly bite if it is able to draw and taste blood. Female varieties will even chase their targets. Ways to repel these tiny beasts include using insect repellent or wearing light-colored clothes.
  • Sand Flies Though sand flies are very small, measuring a quarter the size of a mosquito, their bites can produce blisters or small red welts that can itch or swell. It is possible for these creatures to carry parasitic diseases like leishmaniasis. This condition is usually contracted in places outside the U.S., but some cases have been reported in Oklahoma and Texas.
  • Deer Flies Deer flies are a very aggressive fly species that delivers painful bites. Their mouths feature razor-like lips which can slice skin to feed on the blood. Some people have allergic reactions to the bites. The USDA warns that these flies are the chief bloodsuckers during summer months in the U.S. They are capable of carrying Tularemia (rabbit fever), which would need treatments with antibiotics.
  • Black Flies Also referred to as buffalo gnats, these flies are common in the U.S. and also slash the skin to feed on blood. Fortunately, they don’t usually transmit diseases. Their bites create a scab, and some people experience an itchy welt growing from it. If the latter occurs, the victim could develop “black fly fever,” characterized by nausea, headaches, fever, or swollen lymph nodes.
  • Biting Midges These flies are referred to loosely as gnats, but also called “no-see-ums” due to their tiny size. A bite from one can result in a blister or red welt that itches. These flies do suck blood, and the bite delivers a painful sting. They can transmit Mansonella ozzardi, a parasite that could produce flu-like symptoms in the victim.

The photo featured at the top of this post is ©

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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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