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The Life Cycle of Paper Wasps

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Paper wasps evoke fear from people who unsuspectingly stumble upon their nests, but these wasps are not quick to attack like yellow jackets unless their nests are disturbed. Although the various species of paper wasps differ in appearance, their life cycles are the same. They have egg, larval, pupal and adult stages.

General Description

Most paper wasps are 3/4-inch to nearly 1 inch long, with slender waists and somewhat long bodies. Coloration varies between species but can be brownish, reddish-brown or yellow with black markings. These wasps often make their nests in close proximity to humans, preferring eaves, stairwells and other protected areas to hang their nests from.

Emerging Queens

Fertilized female paper wasps are the only members of colonies who survive winter, often seeking refuge inside structures or among organic debris outdoors during the cold. In spring, these females re-emerge, ready to create new colonies and raise the new generation of paper wasps. In some cases, many potential queens will congregate together to form a new nest, although one female will become dominant over the others and serve as the queen for the new colony.

Eggs and Nest

The small colony of females begin to build a paper nest out of chewed wood pulp. The nest, constructed of many hexagonal cells, gradually increases in size. Unlike hornets or yellow jackets, paper wasps build their nests in the open and don't hide the cells. The nests are most often shaped like upside-down umbrellas with the cell openings on the bottom. The queen lays her eggs, one per cell, and the cells will serve as the immature wasps' homes from egg through pupa.


As the eggs begin to hatch into wasp larvae, the adults will forage to find them caterpillars and other soft-bodied prey to feed on. The small larvae stay inside the hexagonal cells and feed until they're ready to pupate. The larvae will cover the openings to their cells to pupate.