Wasp Nest Identification

So, you’ve run across a strange, papery or clay-like structure hanging from your eaves or stuck to the side of your house and you want to know who left it there. Or maybe you’re just interested in wasp nest identification. Either way, we’ll guide you through the different types of nests wasps build, how they make them, how many wasps you can expect to find inside a wasp nest, and where you may find nests. We won’t cover how to get rid of them, so if you’re looking for that, check out our article, “How to Remove a Wasp Nest”.

Types of Wasp Nest

The most common types of wasp nests you’ll find are made by yellow jackets, hornets, paper wasps, or mud daubers. Yellow jackets, hornets, and paper wasps all make a rudimentary type of paper out of chewed up wood mixed with saliva. They use this paper to build a nest of multiple, sometimes layered, cells.

So, where do wasps live? Yellow jackets often build enormous colonial nests with many tiers of cells underground (usually in abandoned rodent burrows), in rotten logs, in pipes, or in other hollow structures. Some yellow jackets build hanging nests out in the open. Yellowjacket nests are surrounded by a thick protective envelope with a single entrance. The first cell layer hangs from the envelope interior and each subsequent layer of cells hangs from the one above. The baldfaced hornet, which is actually a type of yellow jacket, builds a hanging pear-shaped nest up to two feet long, typically in a tree. Yellowjacket nests can have nearly 100 tiers of cells.

The European hornet is the only true hornet you’re likely to come across. They build a similar type of communal nest, with an envelope protecting tiered cells within. Hornet nests are typically built high up (at least 6 feet) in tree cavities or other void spaces.

Paper wasp nests don’t have a protective envelope. They build open-air cells that hang from a stalk and look like an open umbrella from the side. It’s only when you get underneath that you can see the honeycomb-like cell structure. Paper wasps build in protected areas, such as under roof overhangs, tree branches, or even within manmade structures like attics, sheds, and garages. Their nests typically don’t get bigger than about 4 inches across.

Mud daubers are different. They are solitary wasps, so instead of big colonial nests, they build single-family dwellings. They also use different material. Instead of wood, they mix their saliva with soil to make a mud nest on the side of a building or in a hole in the ground. A mud dauber nest is tubular, round, or rectangular, and typically measures two to three inches across. One species of mud dauber doesn’t make nests at all, instead preferring to steal the nests of other mud dauber mothers.

How It’s Made

wasp nest identificationYellow jackets, hornets, and paper wasps all hang their nests from stalks. The stalks and the nests themselves are built by molding their paper material into the shape they want. For the stalks, this is a narrow cylinder. They then build a thin layer radially out from the stalk and construct the cell walls onto this layer. The envelope of yellow jacket and hornet nests is built out of multiple layers of paper to make it strong and protective. Yellow jackets can enlarge their underground spaces by wetting the dirt and digging.

Mud daubers moisten the soil and roll it into a mud ball, using their mandibles and forelegs, that they then transport to their nest site. When building onto a wall, they spread the mud in a layer and build up a single cell first, lay one egg in that cell, then begin bringing insects or spiders back to the cell. Once the cell is full of prey for her larvae, she builds a roof over the cell and starts work on the next cell. Eventually, this collection of cells forms a three-dimensional tube, circle, or rectangle. To build underground, a mud dauber first digs a hole, then lines it with mud and builds a funnel over the entrance. This funnel is attached to the entrance via a tube and instead of being upright, it hangs upside down like a bell and has a smooth inside. This prevents smaller, parasitic wasps from entering. Ground-dwelling mud daubers build cells within their holes and lay one egg per cell.

Nest Populations

Social wasps have large families. Although they start with a single female (the queen or foundress), they quickly grow as her larvae mature into workers. Yellowjacket colonies can have 1,500 to 15,000 individuals. Hornets live in populations of between 300 and 1,000 individuals. Paper wasps, with their much smaller nests, typically only number between 15 and 2003.

Solitary wasps live in much lower numbers. Not only do they lay fewer eggs, but mud daubers only provision the nest once by leaving multiple paralyzed or dead insects or spiders in each cell for the larvae to feed on when they hatch. Once the female seals off her nest with a roof, she doesn’t return. The black and yellow mud dauber builds a nest with only 25 cells and lays a single egg in each cell. The ground-dwelling mud dauber only lays between 2 and 5 eggs per nest.

Where to Find Wasp Nests

As mentioned, some species of yellow jackets, hornets, and mud daubers live underground. Your best bet for finding an underground wasp nest (or any type of nest, for that matter) on purpose is to watch where the wasps seem to be coming and going from. If you can trace them back to their hole in the ground or another type of nest site, you’ll at least know where the nest is even if you can’t see it.

It may be difficult to find hornet nests by monitoring insect activity. Hornets are different from other wasps in that they often hunt at night, so you may have some trouble following them home.

Other cavity nests may be found inside rotten stumps or logs, in the hollows of living trees, inside poles or pipes, in chimneys, in children’s playground equipment, inside outbuildings, playhouses, in attics, or in pet/poultry hutches. You’ll find them in pretty much any small, dark space. They may even build nests in the wall or ceiling of a home.

Those that hang their nests still need shelter, so they may be located on tree branches, in shrubs, under eaves, beneath outdoor furniture, in garages or barns, under porches and decks, under the roofs of porches, decks, and picnic shelters, on an attic ceiling, or just about any sheltered area with a spot from which to hang a nest.

Mud dauber nests are likely to be found in the same types of sheltered places as hanging nests. The only difference is that they’re a pottery-type nest plastered to the wall instead of a paper nest hanging down.

Alternatively, you may accidentally stumble across a nest, which won’t be a nice experience. Wasps can be very defensive of their nests and social wasps secrete an alarm pheromone that calls the rest of the colony to action. You could find yourself in a swarm of stinging insects. It’s best to try to locate a nest by monitoring wasps and checking cavities and sheltered areas before you, a family member, or a pet accidentally triggers their defense mechanism. Once you’ve found them, it’s best to steer clear of the nest area. Wasps are useful to have around, so if they’re not nesting somewhere that gets a lot of foot traffic, you should leave them be. If you find a wasp nest in the house, however, you should get rid of it.


Wasps use paper or mud to construct all sorts of elaborate, multichambered nests. They’re very versatile in terms of location as well, building underground, in trees, and even in buildings. They’re perfectly happy to use someone else’s home as their own, living in manmade structures, rodent burrows, or stealing the nests of other wasps. Here, we’ve provided you a handy guide to find out what kind of nest you may be dealing with, how many wasps could be living there, and where to find nests if you know there are wasps around somewhere. We’ve also offered a word of advice. Wasps are important ecologically and are also helpful around the home and garden. If you can, it’s best to leave their nests alone and let them carry on with their business. Check out our article, “The Purpose of Wasps” to learn more. Happy hunting!


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