Illustration of the 4cm long Ichneumon wasp, with its narrow black body and long egg laying tube

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.

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Many people know wasps only for their stings, which they use to kill prey or defend themselves. But very few species actually sting people.

Wasps also carry out beneficial roles in the garden, including pollinating flowers. They’re also great for pest control – they catch and feed invertebrates such as caterpillars, flies and aphids to stock their small nests or feed their young. Some parasitise other insects, or steal the food from other bees and wasps.

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

Learn more about these fascinating creatures in our wasp identification guide.

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

German social wasp (Vespula germanica)

Illustration of a German social wasp, showing the shield-shaped black mark on its thorax
Illustration of a German social wasp, showing the shield-shaped black mark on its thorax

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


Ichneumon wasp (Rhyssa persuasoria)

Illustration of the 4cm long Ichneumon wasp, with its narrow black body and long egg laying tube
Illustration of the 4cm long Ichneumon wasp, with its narrow black body and long egg laying tube

40mm in length, with a narrow black body, and 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)

Illustration of a mason wasp, showing its distinctive thick black abdominal stripe
Illustration of a mason wasp, showing its distinctive thick black abdominal stripe

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)

Illustration of a ruby-tailed wasp, with metallic blue-green thorax and metallic magenta abdomen
Illustration of a ruby-tailed wasp, with metallic blue-green thorax and metallic magenta abdomen

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)

Illustration of a male digger wasp with broad, flat shields on its front legs
Illustration of a male digger wasp with broad, flat shields on its front legs

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)

Illustration of the yellow and black common social wasp
Illustration of the yellow and black common social wasp

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)

Illustration of the wood wasp or horntail, with its egg-laying spike at the tip of its abdomen
Illustration of the wood wasp or horntail, with its egg-laying spike at the tip of its abdomen

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)

Illustration of the narrow, black bramble wasp
Illustration of the narrow, black bramble wasp

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)

Illustration of the green ruby-tailed wasp
Illustration of the green ruby-tailed wasp

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)

Illustration of the brown, orange and yellow European hornet
Illustration of the brown, orange and yellow European hornet

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)

Illustration of the median wasp
Illustration of the median wasp

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)

Illustration of the hornet-mimic hoverfly
Illustration of the hornet-mimic hoverfly

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.

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