Vespidae: Vespinae, Polistinae (social wasps)
Welcome to the BRITISH SOCIAL WASPS ON FLICKR site. This collection attempts to cover most species of social wasp (subfamilies Vespinae and Polistinae of the family Vespidae) on the British and Irish list, acting as a virtual field experience and as a virtual museum collection.
Members of the Vespinae (notably the strongly synanthropic Vespa vulgaris and V. germanica) are the most familiar wasps in Britain. Nine species are fully established, and a further one (The Asian Hornet) may become so soon having been found sporadically since 2016. These nine species are arranged in three genera:
Vespula - the short-cheeked yellowjackets (austriaca, germanica, rufa, vulgaris), so called because the face is rounder with a smaller 'malar gap' between the bottom of the eye and the base of the mandible . They typically nest in cavities except for the cleptoparasitic V. austriaca which takes over the nests of V. rufa.
Dolichovespula - the long-cheeked yellowjackets (media, norwegica, saxonica, sylvestris), so called because the face is more oval with a deeper 'malar gap' between the bottom of the eye and the base of the mandible. These typically nest within foliage, suspending their nest from a twig.
Vespa - the true hornets, with one very large long-established species, the European Hornet (V. crabro), and a second smaller species that is not fully established at the time of writing, the Asian Hornet (V. velutina).
All three of these of these genera create large, complex nest structures comprised of several combs of hexagonal nest cells surrounded by an outer, insulating casing called an envelop. Like a bumblebee or Honey Bee, a single queen controls a colony and she is well-differentiated fom the workers in being about twice their size.
Polistes - the paper wasps. These resemble yellowjacket wasps though they have a slimmer body and relatively longer legs. The nesting habits are more primitive in that the nest consist of a single circular comb which lacks a surrounding envelope. Queens and workers look very similar and only a few dozen workers are produced. A nest may have more than one queen, and workers can occasionally become queens. Four species are reported to have nested in Britain (biglumis, dominula, gallicus and nimpha) but only P. dominula appears to be establishing, and this is only since about 2000.
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 more Polistes species. It is very easy for fertilised, hibernating 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 Dolichovespula 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 Vespinae species is Else (1994) Social Wasps (British Wildlife, 1994, pp 304-311).
A key to the species of Central Europe (Dvorak & Roberts, 2006) can be downloaded from here:
The four British species of Polistes can be identified using Falk & George (2021) BJENH 34(1) pp 1-7.
A key to the West Palaearctic Polistes species by Schmid-Egger et.al. (2017) can be downloaded here:
Photos in the species albums are arranged in the sequence: males, queens, workers, nests and (for some) habitat.