The identification of Nottinghamshire Social Wasps
     
A photographic identification guide to the social wasps of Nottinghamshire's, has really been brought about through a developing need by internet users across in the UK, who don't have access to the required literature.

UK wasp identification, wasp species UK and wasp identification UK, are three of the most regularly used search terms leading to eakringbirds.com and during the Summer months, five out of the ten most regular web searches we get, are wasp related. Searches for photographs of some of the less common, or less known wasps, often leads to incorrectly identified/labelled wasps.

Wasp identification in the field is difficult and it must be pointed out at this early stage, that the correct identification from photographs is not always 100% accurate and this guide does not cover all the required identification features.

 
.....
Some of the facial features (the anchor mark especially) that enable identification, and which are often quoted in general insect field guides as being characteristic to a particular species, can vary between individuals of the same species. Individuals of some other species can also have similar markings through variation. We have found that this undoubtedly leads to further observer frustration and confusion, but (together with a combination of the amount of yellow on the Ocular sinus and yellow thoracic markings) is the best method of species identification.
.....
 
.....
Whilst we have found that some species can be quite easily recognised with a good view of the face and a small hand lens whilst in the field, generally a very good digital photograph, or a dead specimen is required to make the identification.
.....
Species identification

Before attempting any identification, it is best to determine the caste (queen, male or worker) of the wasp. Queens are the largest of the three castes and are the only wasp caste found in Spring. Most identification queries leading to this website, come during the Summer and early Autumn and will most likely involve males and workers which are plentiful at this time. Identification of just the workers will be discussed here.

Many wasps found on flowers from August onwards will often be males. These tend to be more docile and slightly less active than workers and often make better photographic subjects. Male wasps show seven obvious sections (Terga) to the abdomen which consequently appears often noticably longer, with workers (below) showing just six.

Males also have 13 segmented antennae, compared to just 12 segments in both queens and workers, so their antennae are longer and often held in a slightly droopy fashion.

 
.....
  Males also seem less inclined to conspicuously bend their antennae in the manner of workers, but beware, as antennal length is not always obvious and depends on the angle of view to some degree.

The first antennal segment away from the antennal insertion point on the head is usually more obvious (longer) in both workers and queens. The underside of this antennal segment is either yellow or black in workers and predominantly yellow in males.

Once the caste is known, then a good view of the face will determine whether the wasp is a Dolichovespula or Vespula species. A much greater Malar space (the area between the bottom of the eye and base of the mandible) means that the wasp is a Dolichovespula species. These wasps are usually noticably larger than Vespula species and facial length becomes easier to determine with practice.

Wasp facial patterns vary between individual workers of the same species, but variation is usually restricted to the amount of black markings on the Clypeus (see German Wasp identification).

.....
In many general insect guides, the anchor mark on the face of the Common Wasp is often quoted as a key identification feature, but the Red Wasp also has an obvious anchor-like mark, though this seems to be thicker in many of the Red Wasp workers we looked at. However, these markings do provide one of the most reliable identification features to the interested observer. Markings on the Clypeus are best used in conjunction with the amount of yellow on the Ocular sinus and yellow thoracic markings, which do seem to be characteristic to species.
.....
  The thoracic markings seem to be as reliable an identification to species as are the facial markings, each being relatively distinct enough. But a good side photograph or actual specimen is usually still required to see the relevant features for accurate identification purposes, as the distinguishing markings are virtually impossible to see on an active wasp. Once seen well enough, the combination of thoracic markings will help to clinch an identification when used in conjunction with facial markings.

All worker wasps apart from the Hornet, have a black thorax which is covered in long hairs, especially on Common Wasp. Points to note during identification are the yellow (and distinguishing) markings on the various sections of the thorax of each species. These can be either one or two lines on the edge of the Pronotum, two spots on the Metatonum (note shape and size) the presence and shape of a single spot at the top of the Episternum and presence of an irregular blotch on the Propodeum. Note that the Hornet has none of any of the above mentioned markings and the background colouration is chestnut brown.

.....
The use of abdominal markings an an identification aid seems very limited in our experience. Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris) workers certainly show considerable variation in the amount and shape of any black on each Tergum, which is well illustrated by the abdomens of three vulgaris workers taken from a single colony shown below, but note the extreme similarity to that of the worker germanica.
.....
   
Vespa crabro spp. vexator .. Dolichovespula media .. Dolichovespula saxonica
..
   
Dolichovespula sylvestris .. Vespula rufa .. Vespula vulgaris
..
   
Vespula vulgaris .... Vespula vulgaris .... Vespula germanica
.....
Usually after size, the abdominal pattern is often one of the first aspects to be noted in the field and with experience, can sometimes provide the initial clue that the wasp is something other than a Common Wasp. Red Wasp workers tend not to have as much red on the first and second Tergum as the one illustrated on this page.
 
     
Identification features of Nottinghamshire's Social Wasps

The identifications of the wasps illustrated below are believed to be correct. In order to produce the following images, it was neccessary to kill one or two worker wasps of each species. This is something we don't like doing, but it would have otherwise have been an impossible task to produce the range of similar images of each species that we have.

In order for ease of comparison between species, we have initially grouped species together into three seperate sections showing facial features, thoracic features from above and thoracic features from the side. Hornet is not included in the following quick comparison section. Norwegian Wasp is not included due to the lack of an available specimen.

.....
 
Quick comparison - Facial features
........
   
Dolichovespula media . Dolichovespula saxonica . Dolichovespula sylvestris
..........
   
Vespula rufa . Vespula vulgaris . Vespula germanica
         
         
Quick comparison - Thoracic patterns (above view)
........
   
Dolichovespula media . Dolichovespula saxonica . Dolichovespula sylvestris
..........
   
Vespula rufa . Vespula vulgaris . Vespula germanica
         
         
Quick comparison - Thoracic patterns (side view)
........
   
Dolichovespula media . Dolichovespula saxonica . Dolichovespula sylvestris
..........
   
Vespula rufa   Vespula vulgaris . Vespula germanica
  . . . .
         
The following section gives more detailed information on identification features. Although Hornet is visually totally different in colouration and size to the other social wasps, we have included it in the following section purely for completeness.
     
Hornet Vespa crabro spp. vexator (Linnaeus, 1758)
Hornet identification should not present a problem, even to the inexperienced observer. Even in flight, Hornets are easy to identify through combination of size (workers are usually over 2.5cm long) and colouration. The only possible confusion can come from Dolichovespula media queens seen during the Spring and Autumn, which exhibit similar colouration, although they are much smaller than Hornet queens.
......................................... ... ...
Facial features   Ocular sinus and front of head completely yellow, with distinct chestnut patch towards top of head. Clypeus completely yellow.
Thoracic features   Thorax with no yellow lines or spots. Pronotum wholly dark chestnut. Episternum with areas of dark chestnut becoming almost black in places. Metatonum chestnut with no elongated yellow spots. Propodeum chestnut.
........
1. Vespa crabro spp. vexator (facial markings)   2. Vespa crabro spp. vexator (thoracic markings)
 
........
3. Vespa crabro spp. vexator (side view of thoracic markings)   4. Vespa crabro spp. vexator (typical abdominal markings)
 
     
     
Median Wasp Dolichovespula media (Retzius, 1783)
A large wasp. Some workers can show an almost entirely black abdominal colouration leaving just thin yellow bands along each Tergum, making them very distinctive.
......................................... ... ...
Facial features   Ocular sinus largely yellow. Clypeus yellow with thin black line or elongated central spot. Side of head largely yellow immediately behind the eye.
Thoracic features   Thorax shiny in comparison to other species. Pronotum with thin yellow borders from behind head and extending towards wings and downwards vertically behind head. Metatonum with two elongated yellow/orange spots that nearly touch. Episternum black with no yellow spots. Propodeum black with no yellow spots or blotches.
........
1. Dolichovespula media (facial markings)   2. Dolichovespula media (thoracic markings)
 
........
3. Dolichovespula media (side view of thoracic markings)   4. Dolichovespula media (typical abdominal markings)
 
     
     
Saxon Wasp Dolichovespula saxonica (Fabricius, 1793)
A large wasp which is probably rare in Nottinghamshire.
......................................... ... ...
Facial features   Ocular sinus Short yellow line running from the Clypeus to behind antennae, but not usually extending above the antennae. Clypeus yellow with a small black spot or short, elongated central spot. Small, dull yellow patch at top of head behind the eye.
Thoracic features   Thorax dull in comparison to Median Wasp workers. Pronotum with thin yellow border from behind head and extending towards wings. Metatonum with two small and well spaced yellow spots. Episternum black with roughly triangular yellow spot below wings. Propodeum black with yellow spots or blotches.
........
1. Dolichovespula saxonica (facial markings)   2. Dolichovespula saxonica (thoracic markings)
 
........
3. Dolichovespula saxonica (side view of thoracic markings)   4. Dolichovespula saxonica (typical abdominal markings)
 
     
     
Tree Wasp Dolichovespula sylvestris (Scopoli, 1763)
A large wasp which is probably fairly common across much of Nottinghamshire.
......................................... ... ...
Facial features   Ocular sinus with yellow line running from the Clypeus to at least top of eye. Clypeus yellow with indistinct, small central spot. Head and sides of face with conspicuous long hairs, easily longer than on other Dolichovespula species.
Thoracic features   Thorax shiny with long hairs. Pronotum with yellow border from behind head, becoming notably broader towards wings. Metatonum with no elongated yellow spots or blotches. Episternum black with triangular yellow spot below base of wing. Propodeum black with no yellow spots or blotches.
........
1. Dolichovespula sylvestris (facial markings)   2. Dolichovespula sylvestris (thoracic markings)
 
........
3. Dolichovespula sylvestris (side view of thoracic markings)   4. Dolichovespula sylvestris (typical abdominal markings)
 
     
     
Red Wasp Vespula rufa (Linnaeus, 1758)
A fairly small wasp, which seems common in Nottinghamshire. Workers show some variation in the amount and extent of the red markings on the abdomen. The one illustrated shows quite an extreme amount of red.
......................................... ... ...
Facial features   Ocular sinus with yellow line running above the eye, leaving clear space between the Clypeus and the start of the line. Clypeus yellow with thick black vertical line creating a broad anchor mark. Yellow patch at front of head (between antennae) small in relation to other species. Side of head with a small yellow spot, becoming white down length of the eye.
Thoracic features   Pronotum with yellow border from behind head and extending towards wings. Metatonum with two very small yellow spots. Episternum black with dull yellow triangular spot. Propodeum black with no yellow spots or blotches.
........
1. Vespula rufa (facial markings)   2. Vespula rufa (thoracic markings)
 
     
3. Vespula rufa (side view of thoracic markings)   4. Vespula rufa (abdominal markings)
 
     
     
Common Wasp Vespula vulgaris (Linnaeus, 1758)
A relatively small wasp which is very common throughout Nottinghamshire and the most likely encountered. Common Wasp workers show quite a large amount of variation in abdominal colouration and markings.
......................................... ... ...
Facial features   Ocular sinus largely yellow. Clypeus yellow with black vertical line forming a characteristic anchor mark (see also Red Wasp)
Thoracic features   Pronotum with quite a thick yellow border from behind head and extending towards wings. There is a small yellow patch at the wing joint and often a further tiny spot between end of yellow Pronotum border and triangular spot on Episternum. Metatonum with two elongated yellow spots that nearly touch. Episternum black with yellow triangular spot. Propodeum black with irregular yellow blotch on either side.
.....
1. Vespula vulgaris (facial markings)   2. Vespula vulgaris (thoracic markings)
 
.....
3. Vespula vulgaris (side view of thoracic markings)   4. Vespula vulgaris (abdominal markings vary)
 
     
     
German Wasp Vespula germanica (Fabricius, 1793)
A fairly small and common species. German Wasp workers are very similar to some Common Wasps, although abdominal pattern seems to vary little in this species.
......................................... ... ...
Facial features   Ocular sinus largely yellow. Clypeus yellow often three black dots in the centre (the lower two usually smaller). There is a black notch at the top of the Clypeus, which on some workers can be extended or joined to the upper spot in the centre of the Clypeus. In the more extreme cases, some German Wasp workers can resemble Common Wasp workers and other facial features need to be checked.
Thoracic features   Pronotum with yellow border of irregular width from behind head and extending towards wing, meeting a yellow blotch at wing base. Metatonum with two elongated yellow spots, with clear seperation. Episternum black with yellow triangular spot and quite sharply angled. Propodeum black with large yellow blotches, less irregularly shaped than on Common Wasp.
.....
1. Vespula germanica (facial markings)   2. Vespula germanica (thoracic markings)
 
.....
3. Vespula germanica (side view of thoracic markings)   4. Vespula germanica (typical abdominal markings)
 
.....
Facial variation among Vespula germanica workers

Most books give the three dots on the Clypeus as being diagnostic to Vespula germanica. However, when comparing the three workers below and without looking at other facial and thoracic identification features, only worker A would probably be immediately identifiable in the field. Workers B and C could both easily be mistaken for Vespula vulgaris workers, with the anchor mark typical of that species being incomplete. They are however, all Vespula germanica workers.

.....
Worker A. Worker B. Worker C.
     
 
Wasps
Bee and Wasp Photo Gallery - Thumbnail version
Insect Photo Gallery - Text version
Insects
Homepage
Contents