Is That a Wasp? A Simple Wasp Identification Guide

Is that a wasp!? For numerous reasons, I think it is. But it could also be a be in the Nomada genus. Or it could be a figment of my imagination. Or a holographic projection of a wasp. Who the fuck knows!? I try and help you in this guide! (Credit: Me)

Just because it’s black and yellow, doesn’t mean it’s a wasp.

A bumblebee is not a fat hairy wasp.

Not a fat, hairy wasp! This is obviously a bumblebee! A white-tailed bumblebee of which the UK has 11 species if you count the cuckoo bumblebees. They’re fascinating (and difficult to tell apart!) in their own right. (Credit: Me)

The wasp-beetle is not a wasp in armour.

The wasp beetle (Clytus arietis) is easily told apart from a wasp because it has the face of a beetle, and the legs of a beetle, and the hard outer wing casings (elytra) of a beetle. I mean, all it’s missing is the number ’53’ on it’s back and it’d be fucking Herbie it’s so beetle. (Credit: Bernard DUPONT CC-BY-SA-2.0)

This fat caterpillar of the six-spot burnet moth is not just a chunky tubewasp.

Not a wasp! It’s the larval form, the caterpillar, of the six-spot burnet moth (Zygaena filipendulae). It’s obviously not a wasp because wasps are not fat caterpillars. (Credit: Me)

The fact is most wasps aren’t even fucking black and yellow!

That is a wasp! It’s orange and black, it’s about 30-40 (pushing 40) mm long and it’s gorgeous. It’s not small, it’s not black-and-yellow, it looks NOTHING like your standard yellowjacket, but that’s a wasp! (Credit: Me)

But don’t worry. We’re ‘We Lack Discipline‘ and we don’t judge. We might poke fun, but we don’t judge.

I’m fairly certain I’ve posted sawflies, regular flies, butterflies, trouser flies…All of this stuff and asked “Is this a wasp!?” sometimes to Professor Seirian Sumner a fucking Professor and Wasp Wizard! Imagine what a dick I must look!

I mentioned in my guide to hedge-spotting (go read it, it’s an excellent way to save £25 on a zoo ticket and enjoy just as much, if not a better, richness of species and behaviour) that you shouldn’t worry so much about IDing the stuff as you should just watching it. Where is it? What is it doing? Why is it doing it?

Also not a wasp. This is likely the spotted longhorn beetle (Rutpela maculata) – The whole black-and-yellow deal is very common in nature. (Credit: Me)

But eventually your brain is gonna kick in – Curiosity is natural to humans – and ask “What the fuck was that!?” and unlike with plants there’s no app for quickly identifying bugs.

This is for good reason, though. Sometimes the difference between one species and another is a tiny mark, spot, spur or hair on a place you didn’t photograph!

It’s shit, but welcome to the world of invertebrates!? Want to feel better about it? Most of these species, their Latin names, their roles – I didn’t know until after my wasp article a couple of months back. Even then, I often have to google the Latin names because some of them are ridiculous and others just…not memorable. I’m a human, not a supercomputer!

I took a photo of a wasp recently, made fun of myself for probably misidentifying it and had a doctor of Agroecology (basically wildlife in agricultural settings – e.g. understanding pests and pollinators of farmed crops) join in the gag and say how this is EVERYONE learning insects.

You’re not alone. You’re not stupid. It’s fucking tough, relax your ego, let your curiosity take over and enjoy the process of being wrong because – when it comes to inverts – it’s inevitable.

Anyway – Since the Big Wasp Survey is still on-going and I’m trying to get you all out there checking out your wasps you need to know what a wasp is or isn’t.

Obviously if it’s shaped like a caterpillar or a beetle it’s…well obviously not a wasp.

Wasps are a three-segmented insect; a head – usually a triangular shape, a thorax – the chest area which actually varies a bit in wasps, and an abdomen – its arse, which likewise varies significantly. What doesn’t vary so much is the join between the thorax and the abdomen – Wasps have a thin waist – ALWAYS.

It’s utilising a standard Vespula sp. sterile worker but this is the standard wasp layout. The Haynes Manual of wasp. Head, thorax and abdomen, two sets of wings (often hard to distinguish as the second set might be joined or seemingly joined) but that waist! That’s the TEXTBOOK feature you’re looking for. (Credit: WikipedianProlific by GFDL)

Caterpillars are larvae, tubes of monch with the intent to metamorphose, to transform, into something different. Beetles are beetle-like and have hard wing casings called elytra that are pretty obvious.

So, that out of the way we’ll move on to things it can be hard to tell apart from wasps. I’ll start with a simple one – Is it big, puffy and fluffy? If so it’s probably a bee. Very few wasps that I know of have that degree of fluff. It’s a bumble.

Even bumblebees need beach holidays. Notice that little strip of yellow above the white on the tail? That would lead me to believe this is the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) one of our most common and widespread bumblebee species. (Credit: Me)

Unless…

Next simple one – Does it have massive, cartoony, often reddish but sometimes brown or black, eyes? If so it’s probably a hoverfly. Those large compound eyes are a hallmark of the Diptera and no matter how much they want to look like wasps or bees the hoverflies haven’t evolved out of those eyes.That’s the easy ones out of the way.

I posted this in another article as a ‘spot the difference’. Notice how the entire face area of this ‘bumblebee’ is fucking big eyes!? It’s because this is a fly that very convincingly mimics the bumblebee. Volucella bombylans, it’s not paticularly clear in this image but they also often have a small black spot or strip around the outside-mid of their wings. (Credit: Me)

Next we have one of, in my opinion, the hardest differences to spot, Nomada bees. I have no doubt I have misidentified so many of these as wasps!

They are a type of cuckoo bee, so they lay their eggs in other bee’s nests and besides knowing what species is what on sight, which you won’t unless you’re an expert, it can be hard to tell the difference.

The perfect wasp-mimic. This is almost certainly a member of the Nomada genus, the nomad bees. They look like slightly smaller wasps, particularly similar to the Polistes genus of wasps, but they’re not. (Credit: Me)

They go in for the black-and-yellow, or black-and-red colouration often seen in wasps. Their thorax markings often resemble wasps, they have a little pinch at the waist, making them look like wasps, I’ve even seen them flying in a manner that looks exceptionally wasp like.

I shared numerous pictures of what I hope (fingers crossed) were wasps yesterday that may very well have been Nomada bees.

So…my advice for these? Fuck it!? Ask an expert? There are online services like ispot Nature that you can submit your photos to be analysed and identified. If you feel like browsing a catalogue of images and doing the ID yourself, if you’re UK based, UK Safari has a huge range of photos you can check out.

It can be so hard because so many of the features of these bees and wasps are the same that without a specimen in hand, without being able to look at fine details in the face, on the belly, small markings on the thorax etc. it can be nearly impossible.

My favourite shot of mine of a nomad bee because I caught it mid-flight, perfectly! You can see how waspy it actually is, but do not be confused. These really are bees. (Credit: Me)

You will get it wrong, don’t worry about it. Wasps and nomad bees are both fascinating species, enjoy that you’ve seen one or the other!

A red sawfly, possibly Hoplocampa sp. though I haven’t got a definitive ID on it yet. (Credit: Me)

Then we have sawflies and wood wasps. These are all hymenopterans, like wasps (and ants and bees) but they diverged slightly earlier than the Apocrita, the sub-order of wasps, ants and bees.

The single, tell-tale giveaway of a sawfly is in sizing. For one thing some of them can be chonky. Wasps vary in size but what they universally have is a abdomen that tapers to a thin waist. Sawflies don’t!

Some of them, like this green sawfly…

A green sawfly (Rhogogaster viridis), waspy from the face but far too chonky all around! (Credit: Me)

…Are just large all over, for all the waspy features of the wings and face it was just obvious this was too T H I C C to be a wasp.

Others, like these stem borer sawflies…

A stem borer sawfly, likely the wheat stem borer (Cephus pygmeus) has waspy bands across its abdomen but that abdomen goes straight up into the thorax without a taper. Un-wasp like! (Credit: Me)

…Did look tiny and wasp like but, check the waist? They’re like a universal sized tube up through their thorax. There’s no pinch, no trademark wasp-waist between the abdomen and thorax.

So, in that sense, if you get a look it’s quite easy to tell sawflies apart. But what if you don’t get to see the abdomen? What if the wings cover it up?

Well, again it varies and is tough but a lot of wasps have medium/medium-long antennae and sawflies tend to have them shorter. That’s not a solid rule, though. So, it’s a bit like the nomad bees. Sometimes you’re just gonna have to get it wrong!

This is a great example. Spotted at a distance, I couldn’t get close to it, wings kept closed…But, I can’t see any noticeable length in the antennae and the body looks a little chonky with no noticeable waist-taper…I might be giving up on the rarest wasp in the UK but my suspicion is this is some kind of wood-wasp or sawfly, neither of which are true wasps. (Credit: Me)

Then there are other confusing things, like tiny little carpenter bees. Solitary bees, small black bodies, three segments, quite narrow waists. They’re a minefield but what I would say is rotundity! Is it…roundish?

Wasps tend to be more elongate, longer; their abdomens, if they are a squat species, have a teardrop shape whereas bees tend to be rounded. Also keep an eye out on the back legs. Bees have ‘pollen baskets’ or corbiculae to give them their scientific name. These will usually be noticable around the back legs.

Tiny, triangular head, slightly cinched waist – but I’m fairly certain this is a tiny carpenter bee. Likely Ceratina cucurbitina – the most common species of small carpenter bee. Note the rounded abdomen? Also, keep an eye out of stored pollen in the corbiculae. (Credit: Me)

Again, it can be hard, you might have to just be wrong.

I’m constantly asking my wasp people for help with IDs and…I rarely if ever get it and I think I know exactly why.

It’s not that these academics are being rude or aloof because they’ve been positively open and friendly with me. It’s that even they’re unsure. Maybe they’ve got a 60-70% certainty but then that’s still a 30-40% chance of fucking something up very publicly!

Even the experts have other experts they go to for help!

Spot the wasp! This is definitely a wasp, Vespula sp. I was so happy to see her because vespids have been a bit thin on the ground recently. (Credit: Me)

So don’t worry about it. Make a little game of it. You know how sometimes you play a videogame and you can’t get past that bit and you die and get the ‘GAME OVER’ screen and have to try again?

Think of it like that? You’ve got as many chances to get it right as you’ve got time to spare to give it a go and the more you get out there, see, make the mistakes and learn the differences the more confidant you will be in your abilities to identify species.

Some wasps are small, black and good at hiding! So keep your eyes peeled. Looking for the black-and-yellow doesn’t always help. (Credit: Me)

I’ve spoken to many people over the years who think to make it in this world you have to be perfect at everything.

I tell ‘em stop! Hold up! The only people who EVER made it are the people who tried and if they didn’t fuck up along the way they’re not good, they’re lucky.

Fuck ups are life’s way of letting you know you’re trying. So don’t worry about getting it right, worry about trying.

Check out a gallery of my photographs from my first #waspflower walk!

Want to learn more about flowers? Read this article about them and their evolution.

Find out more about #WaspFlower and the Big Wasp Survey here.

For a simple guide on invertebrate nature walks, read our guide here.

Find out how a blossoming passion for invertebrates changed my view of the world.

Want to encourage insect life, wildflowers and biodiversity? Read this guide.

Find out why I consider wasps the most wrongfully hated group of animals in the world.

Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

One thought on “Is That a Wasp? A Simple Wasp Identification Guide

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: