23 Wasps You Might Find In Your Yard: Which Are Harmless & Which To Kill

Imagine lounging idyllically in your sun-soaked garden until you notice a sinister buzzing sound. Before you lunge your book at the pesky wasp (Hymenoptera) to save your arm from developing a painful boil, step back; for there are high odds, it's merely exercising its nature-ordained right of way. As the human equivalent of introverts and extroverts, wasps are classified into solitary and social categories, with the latter accounting for a meager 1.5% of the total population. This implies there's more to wasps than the brightly colored yellow jackets, hornets, and paper wasps you've come to despise (and kill) for their stinging habits.

Like their bee brethren, wasps play the impressive role of a pollinator, with approximately 164 plants solely trusting them for the task (per a 2021 Brock et al. study). Figs and orchids are familiar examples. Similarly, with lip-smacking delight, these carnivores devour irksome critters, including aphids, stink bugs, spiders, and white flies, ensuring your plants put on their exquisite floral display come summer. Some even help decompose and clear out pests' corpses in a vulture-esque manner to feed their larvae. The best part, though? Their ecosystem services don't come at the price of a prick — they're utterly harmless and are best left alone. Read on to know if the wasps visiting your yard are beneficial, may require removal, or warrant slaying.

1. Harmless: Great golden digger wasp (Sphex ichneumoneus)

There isn't much golden in the 1½-inch-long digger wasps, barring the hair on their thorax and head. Instead, they're a classic case of orange-is-the-new-black, as their legs and thorax are painted in warning shades of rust-orange. The remaining body parts appear staid black with wings shimmering an iridescent purple. These ground-dwellers hunt down katydids, grasshoppers, and crickets for their babies when they aren't busy tunneling through the ground (in turn, aerating it) to build their multiple homes or pollinating plants. Humans aren't their target.

2. Harmless: Black and yellow mud dauber (Sceliphron caementarium)

From June to August, black and yellow mud daubers are given to nesting around moist soil in protected areas, such as along a home's sidewalls or under eaves. Excluding their abdomen and legs that feature yellow speckles, they appear black all through, although their wings may give off an orange sheen. These under-an-inch-long, native solitary wasps feed on spiders, doing your garden a considerable service. Since their mud homes are usually annoying, rest assured that you can safely move them out without getting stung.

3. Harmless: Blue mud dauber (Chalybion californicum)

Out as early as May in the Great Lakes region, blue mud daubers are thieves who repurpose black and yellow mud daubers' nests into their own by dampening the soil and discarding the larvae. They're pretty playful, too, as they lure their food, aka spiders, out by jiggling their webs — in fact, black widow spiders are their favorite toy. Featuring 1-inch long, blue-black bodies, these daubers may catch your attention with their shimmering wings well into August. Since they're docile with humans, let them be to help plants like wild carrots and Golden Alexander fertilize.

4. Harmless: Great black wasp (Sphex pensylvanicus)

The great black wasp is another solitary digger wasp that has no interest in stinging homo sapiens unless threatened. They are usually found resting in cushy garden soils, pollinating plants (like milkweed and beans), or clamping down on pests like katydids and grasshoppers. They're active for a short season (July to August) throughout the US, excluding the northwest regions. Staying true to their name, they bear shadowy black, 1½-inch-long hairy frames with a gleam of blue in their wings. However, those sensitive to stings are better off keeping their distance, for they're painful without being harmful.

5. Harmless: American sand wasp (Bembix americana spinole)

As its name indicates, American sand wasps situate their hideouts in the sand during peak summer and keep an eye out for houseflies, mosquitoes, and gnats — sometimes at the cost of steering (menacingly) close to people, which doesn't bode well given their resemblance to aggressive hornets. However, they're even-keeled and won't pierce in their stingers unless stepped on. Usually starring 1-inch-long slender bodies, they have five pale yellow to stark white alternate bands running across their abdomen with green eyes to boot. Their wings are transparent, save for a few coffee-colored veins.

6. Harmless: Gall wasps (Cynipid)

Although you're unlikely to recognize gall wasps, given their diminutive, brown-hued, you might have seen signs of their presence on oak trees and rose shrubs. Encompassing numerous species, they form distinctively shaped galls on twigs, buds, acorns, or foliage where the female wasps inject their eggs. Fortunately, their grubs aren't extremely damaging to their hosts, as they pupate in small numbers — stressed trees are an exception. Destroying the galls and improving trees' vitality should naturally reduce their presence. They pose no health concerns for people.

7. Harmless: Fig wasps (Agaonid)

Fig trees are notorious for attracting wasps. Their fruit, technically a mass of flowers and seeds, requires fertilization, and nature chose the fig wasp to help with the job. Supporting tiny, black-headed, brownish-orange bodies, the mother wasps are hard to spot unless detected kneading their way through needle-sized holes in the fig to deposit their eggs and pollen. They and their wingless male counterparts never leave, though, as the fruit becomes their grave. Don't panic, though, as commercially sold figs are seedless. (While figs are safe for human consumption, the tree's sap can be toxic to children and animals.)

8. Harmless: Smoky winged beetle bandit (Cerceris fumipennis)

For those tired of searching for easy ways to prevent invasive emerald ash borers from destroying your trees, a smoky winged beetle bandit's nest in their yard's compacted soil will be a welcome respite. While the nests can pass for ant hills, the beetles lack ants' sly activity. Starring tiny, skittle-sized black bodies and wings, these native species can be distinguished by a single yellow stripe running across their abdomen and similarly-hued face markings. Fortunately, they're bandits only against wood-boring pests and remain docile even if a curious human pets them.

9. Harmless: Larra wasps

If you're guilty of making the gardening mistake that's secretly attracting crickets to your yard, meaning growing the plants they like, Larra wasps will feel like an absolute gift from Mother Nature. Barely measuring 8 inches, these tiny wasps temporarily paralyze mole crickets with their sting, then lay their eggs on the host. Later, the nymphs eat through the crickets and then repeat the cycle from May through December after becoming adults. Mostly black in appearance, they have a blood-red abdomen with grayish-white spots on their face and feast on the nectar of wildflowers.

10. Harmless: Ichneumon wasp

As ichneumon wasps are always on the lookout for the nests of horntails' (to lay their eggs inside the pupating larvae), they're usually found haunting stressed hardwood trees from May through July. Including their ovipositor, which doubles up as a mild stinger when they perceive danger, they measure 4 inches. Although boasting black bodies, this variety showcases significant color variation, with Megarhyssa macrurus strewn in red, yellow, and brown markings all over, in contrast to the bright orange head of Megarhyssa atrata. Often mistaken for dragonflies, their three tails are their biggest tell-tale sign.

11. Harmless: Grass-carrying wasps (Isodontia mexicana)

A bee house in your yard yields immense benefits, but it may also open gateways to grass-carrying wasps using the tubes as nests. They carry and carpet their homes with tufts of grass before egg-laying. Although in the wild, they limit themselves to hollowed plant shoots or abandoned aerial cavities. Your window tracks may catch their fancy, too, but you can simply swipe them down. The ¾ inch, black- or ochre-framed natives flock to mountain mint and goldenrods for food but seek tree crickets for their larvae. They aren't aggressive unless handled poorly.

12. Harmless: Blue-winged wasp (Scoliid dubia)

Blue-winged wasps are renowned for their beautiful wings that appear celestial blue when the sun hits right. The two prominent yellow dots on their reddish-orange rear further add to their charm. However, they're widely anticipated during hot summers because they assist in our battles against exotic Japanese beetles and other native grubs (like June beetles). They kickstart their generational cycle by injecting eggs into immature grubs. Other times, they can be found relishing nectar from goldenrod flowers. Blue-winged wasps aren't known to sting humans.

13. Harmless: Five-banded thynnid wasp (Myzinum quinquecinctum)

Out baking in the sun to fulfill their carb quota from flowers, five-banded thynnid (previously, tiphiid) wasps can be hard to identify since their attributes differ greatly between the sexes. Generally, females appear sturdier, as they do the most heavy lifting, digging through the mud for scarab larvae to birth their babies. Also, their wings appear rusty rather than eclectic brown, which is common to leaner males. Both are dark-bodied, with yellow-black bandings on their 1-inch frame. The males, found in swarms pollinating flowers, lack functional stingers, while females restrict their use to targeted insects.

14. May Remove: Paper wasps (Polistes spp.)

Named after their preference to flake off wooden fibers from trees or untreated structures to hang them as their umbrella-shaped homes under protected sites like eaves, paper wasps are usually considered beneficial. As adults, they aid pollination, while their larvae gorge on caterpillars, which otherwise would eat through plants. Unfortunately, some species eat garden fruit, too, which gardeners dislike. While a stray wasp is benign — donning an ½ inch-long, rust-mottled, brown-to-black body with suspended legs (in flight) — encountering a nest full of workers in late summer will leave you stung.

15. May Remove: Potter wasps (Eumenes spp.)

Strutting their tiny, cinch-waisted, black body with some yellow markings thrown in on the thorax and abdomen, potter wasps are more known for their nests that appear like mud pots or vases (thus the name). While the solitary wasps are generally docile and don't guard their nests, they carry a stinger. So, if they're nestling in a frequently visited area, such as window sills or garden shrubs, you can safely knife down their homes without fear. Otherwise, sit back and benefit from them picking off hungry critters for you.

16. May Remove: Cuckoo wasps

Also called emerald wasps and gold wasps for the color variations — blues, greens, purples, and reds are up for grabs — cuckoo wasps are parasitoids. When flitting about and sipping on flower nectar (sometimes aphids' dew), their shimmery silhouette looks breathtaking. Still, when caught stealing into another bug's nest, they're quick to bring all their stocky armor and roll their two halves into a ball (like an Amarillo). Unfortunately, pollinating bees, fellow wasps, and silk moths are all fair game. Moreover, experts remain divided regarding losing their ability to sting, so exercise caution.

17. May Remove: Cicada killer (Sphecius speciosus)

If the crass cacophony of annual cicadas has gotten to you, you'll probably thank your lawn for offering favorable nesting sites to cicada killer wasps. Measuring almost 2 inches, these territorial wasps contain yellow-black banded, orange-speckled, black bodies with elegant ocher wings. Tolerating their nests is acceptable, provided you don't handle them. But remove them if they're homing in high-traffic areas (like mailboxes), or you notice signs the cicada killers in your yard have gone from helpful to harmful by overly displacing your yard's dirt. 

18. May remove: Red wasps (Polistes Carolina and Rubiginosus)

Although they belong to the paper wasp family, red wasps get a special mention because both the Carolina and rubiginosus species are eye-catching rusty red. However, they — especially the males — have pronounced black markings around the head and abdomen with brownish-black wings. These 1-inch-long wasps are pervasive in eastern parts of the US between summer and fall. As they provision their larvae with cicadas and caterpillars, some consider them useful around yards. However, they can sting when they feel endangered, prompting many to knock down their paper homes in the evening.

19. Kill: Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata)

Technically a yellow jacket, bald-faced hornets are black-bodied, clear-winged individuals with pearl-white markings on their face and thorax, approximating ¾ inch in size. Their queens vehemently hunt down caterpillars and anthropods to feed their 400-big brood and have no qualms about spewing their poison on humans, especially when their home is at stake. Generally, they build their paper-based, heavily-combed, pear-like homes over 3 feet high on trees or poles and usually aren't seen until after fall's defoliation when the brood is dead. But if you find them closer home in early summer, seek professional assistance.

20. Kill: European hornets (Vespula crabro Linnaeus)

European hornets give homeowners quite the fright at night as they staunchly knock into brightly lit windows, which intensifies come morning when the insects are leaving lilacs, willows, poplars, and rhododendrons girdled and near-dead. They haggle with gardeners over dropped fruit, especially pears and apples, stinging them incessantly in return. While they collect yellow jackets, grasshoppers, and flies as trophies, they trouble honey bees, too. In short, they pack a lot of nuisance in their 1½ inches, yellow-banded, brown bodies, which grow redder and larger (over 2 inches) for their reigning queens — don't hesitate to banish them.

21. Kill: Velvet ants (Mutillidae)

The name's a misnomer, as velvet ants are actually wasps, having much in common with paper wasps, like their dangling legs. You'll most likely find the wingless female wasps sneaking along the ground in the eastern US in their almost ¾ inch-long, vivid red or orange-striped frames. Their male counterparts can access nectar with their gray-black wings during the summer. Velvet ants deserve no space in your garden, as they exterminate the population of bumble bees and predatory wasps. Also, their sting is potent, earning them the wildly exaggerated nickname of "cow killer."

22. Kill: Tarantula hawk (Pepsis spp.)

Born to put mighty tarantulas in their place, Tarantula hawks are 2½ long wasps with velvety blue-black bodies contrasted gloriously by sunny orange wings. Their ⅓-inch-long stinger has earned the spider-killer the highest pain score on the Schmidt Pain Index, which is ironic considering their adults get high on fruit juices and flower nectar, especially from milkweed and soapberry trees. In the US, they can be found as far up as Utah in the cooler parts of the summer — don't make the mistake of handling them.

23. Kill: Yellowjackets (Vespula spp.)

Not to be confused with honeybees with warm, golden markings, yellowjackets are ½-inch-long wasps boasting black coats on their unduly bright yellow physiques with a few distinct designs per the species. For instance, German yellowjackets (the ones that love carcasses) have diamond-shaped bands. Nesting underground, you may chance upon them while mowing the lawn, drinking soda (they have a sweet tooth), or emptying trash, particularly mid-summer, until frost. Keen on securing their territory, yellowjackets are vengeful biters, which can prove fatal among those highly sensitive to wasp venom. Hire an exterminator to eliminate their presence.