Garden wildlife identifier: wasps

Garden wildlife identifier: wasps

Wasps offer great benefits – this guide will help you identify some of the most common species.

Wasps are a hugely diverse group of insects. Often brightly coloured, wasps come in a multitude of black, brown, yellow and red patterns.


Many people only know wasps for their stings, which they use to kill prey or defend themselves, but very few are able to penetrate human skin.

These creatures also carry out beneficial tasks in the garden: visiting flowers, wasps are important pollinators. They’re also great for pest control – being carnivores, they catch and feed insects to stock their small nests or feed their young. Some parasitise other insects, or steal the food from other bees and wasps.

Most wasps have a nesting or maternal behaviour towards their young. Only ‘social’ wasps build large nests, with overlapping cohorts of many hundreds or thousands of workers.

Check out this wasp identification guide to some of the most common species, to find out more.

Only 'social' wasps build large nests, with overlapping cohorts of many hundreds or thousands of workers.

German social wasp (Vespula germanica)

Workers are 18mm in length, while queens reach 22mm. Similar to common wasp, but has longer black abdominal marks and a shield-shaped central blotch. Face has three black dots. Makes equally large nest of chewed wood with horizontal brood combs.


Ichneumon wasp (Rhyssa persuasoria)

40mm in length, a narrow black body, with an extra 40mm egg-laying tube in the female. Tail sheath is folded back to allow a pin-thin drill to penetrate dead wood, where eggs are laid on grubs of horntail wasps, which the larvae then devour.


Mason wasp (Ancistrocerus parietum)

The mason wasp is 12-15mm long, with a distinctive large black bar across bulbous abdomen. Nests in hollow stems (often dead bramble or elder twigs) or wall holes in old crumbling mortar. Divides cells with chewed clay and stocks them with small moth caterpillars.


Ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis ignita)

Reaches 10-11mm in length, coloured with vivid metallic golden reds and blue/green. Quick, jerky movements on walls, fences or tree trunks. They nip into unguarded mason wasp burrows and lay their eggs, cuckoo-style, in the host nest.


Digger wasp (Crabro cribrarius)

11-13mm in length, the male has bizarre broad, flat shields on front feet. Digs tunnel nest in dry, sandy soil and stocks each cell with 5-8 dead flies for the grubs.


Common social wasp (Vespula vulgaris)

Workers are 18mm in length, while the queen reaches 22mm. Black abdominal bars, face has black anchor mark. Complex paper nest founded by lone mated female; sterile female works forage and build to create a huge city of thousands. Males and new queens emerge in autumn.


Wood wasp or horntail (Urocerus gigas)

Fairly large, at 40mm in length, it’s not really a wasp but a sawfly, its long, sinister looking tail is key to its name. The tail contains a saw-toothed tool to drill into logs and stumps to lay eggs. Maggots burrow through the rotting wood.


Bramble wasp (Trypoxylon figulus)

A narrow, all black wasp, 6-8mm in length. Nests inside hollow bramble and other plant stems, or in old woodworm burrows in dead tree trunks. Divides tunnel with clay cells, and stocks with small spiders.


Green ruby-tailed wasp (Trichrysis cyanea)

4-6mm it length, it’s coloured with brilliant metallic greens and blues. The green ruby-tailed wasp is a parasite of other wasps, including the bramble wasp. It will seek out and lay eggs in a host’s nest.


European hornet (Vespa crabro)

Rich brown and orange-yellow. Queens are up to 40mm long, loudly buzzing and inquisitive. The most secretive and docile of the social wasps, its small nest houses 100-200 workers and is built in trees in mostly wooded areas.


Median wasp (Dolichovespula media)

Workers and males are black and yellow, and the black marks are sometimes very extensive. Queens are up to 30mm long, with brown on the thorax. Its small oval carton nest is suspended from branches.


Hornet-mimic hoverfly (Volucella zonaria)

A harmless lookalike fly, up to 20mm long. It is black, brown and orange, slow-flying with a heavy buzz. It breeds in wasp nests, feeding on detritus, fallen prey and even the wasp grubs.


Many thanks to Chris Shields, for providing the beautiful illustrations used in this feature.