Vespidae: Vespinae (social wasps)
The most familiar group of wasps in Britain - the social wasps, hornets and 'yellowjackets'. Aside from one cleptoparasitic species, Vespula austriaca (the Cuckoo Wasp), these are true social insects that form large colonies controlled by a single queen and served by many workers. Males are produced towards the end of the nest cycle. 9 species of true social wasp within 3 genera are currently resident on the British mainland, with one species of Polistes paper wasp resident on the Channel Islands and occasionally recorded on the mainland. The Asian Hornet (Vespa velutina) was discovered in England in 2016 and it awaits to to be seen it it establishes.
Vespa crabro (the Hornet), which is our largest species, is in the mainly tropical, day and night active genus Vespa.
The genus Dolichovespula, known as long-cheeked wasps or 'tree wasps' (in the broad sense), are represented by D. sylvestris (the Tree Wasp in the strict sense), D. norwegica (the Norwegian Wasp), and two recent British colonists, D. media (the French Wasp) and D. saxonica (the Saxon Wasp). They usually suspend their nests from twigs and branches or build them in cavities above ground level, and their nest cycles are relatively short, with males and new queens usually evident by July.
Of the four members of the genus Vespula. V. vulgaris (the Common Wasp) and V. germanica (the German Wasp) are both locally abundant species that regularly nest in buildings and gardens. Their nests can survive until late autumn and contain hundreds of workers. New queens and males are produced very late, usually when the Ivy is flowering in October. V. rufa (the Red Wasp) is more of a rural species with a shorter colony cycle. In the north and west of its range it is attacked by the cleptoparasitic V. austriaca (the Cuckoo Wasp), which takes over a nest and uses the Red Wasp workers to bring up its own offspring.
The paper wasp Polistes dominula has a slimmer build more like a mason wasp, but with social behaviour that resembles that of a Dolichovespula wasp, though queens and workers look very similar and workers can replace a queen if she is lost (impossible in a true social wasp).
A number of further social wasps could yet colonise Britain, including Dolichovespula adulterina and D. omissa (cleptoparasites of D. saxonica and D. sylvestris respectively) and Vespa orientalis (the Oriental Hornet). It is very easy for fertilised queens of social wasps to get transported in freight!
The folders here will give you a good feel for what the various species look like and the variation that exists within them (considerable in the case of D. media and D. saxonica). In some instances, you will need to take and kill specimens if you want to identify them critically.
The best identification key to the British species is Else (1994) Social Wasps in British Wildlife pp 304-311.
A key to the species of Central Europe can be found at:
Photos are arranged in the sequence males, queens, workers, nests and (for some) habitat.