How to Identify Wasps

picture of a spider wasp catching a spider

Because many wasp species sting, the question of how to identify wasps takes on practical importance in households everywhere. Fortunately many wasps tell their own stories, and identifying them can be a fairly simple task.

Wasps as insect predators is one story told with almost every wasp family. Pompilidae spiders, for example, predate on spiders, using their bodies as larval hosts. North American species numbers approach the 150 mark, divided into a dozen and one half genera. The picture at the top of the page shows the end result of a spider wasp chasing down an orb weaving spider.

picture of a Tarantula hawk

Spider wasps can also be specialized, as demonstrated by the tarantula hawk. It’s the story of large wasps with painful stings taking on large spiders, in a battle of survival. In this case, the tarantula hawk preys on tarantulas for the purpose of making them their larval hosts. As the state insect of New Mexico, the story of the tarantula hawk gets told on a daily basis. Because wasps can be categorized as pest specialists, agriculture specialists have always invested time trying to understand and leverage their utility as natural biological control agents.

picture of an Ichneumon Wasp compsocryptus genera

Physical characteristics also help with wasp identification. Often groups of wasps, be they families or genera, share similar physical characteristics. Ichneumon Wasps, for example, one of the three major groups of wasps, share the characteristics of thin bodies with long antennae and extended tails, formally called Ovipositors. They, divide into two families,

  • Family Braconidae – Braconid Wasps
  • Family Ichneumonidae – Ichneumon Wasps

figuratively blanket North America and the ten thousand or so native species guarantees that a handful of species fly around the yard and ground of most residential areas. For individuals not fluent in wasp identification, the large number of species makes it very difficult to identify any one specimen. Nonetheless, species identification of Ichneumon wasps can be very important because some of the species can be used to for pest control purposes.


picture of a beewolf

A wasp in sheep’s clothing might be the story of beewolves. Small wasps that resemble bees, their name comes from the fact that they hang around flower gardens waiting to snatch a honeybee or sweat bee from the flowers to serve as its larval host. They are one of the more well known of all the Crabronidae wasps.

picture of a wasp in the Bembicinae genera

Another common genera in the Crabronidae family, the Bembicinae species with larger eyesalso tend to stand out on flowers.

How to Identify Wasps: Flower Wasps

picture of a scollid wasp, common flower wasps

So many flower wasps and so little time to photograph and document them. That makes the How to Identify Wasps an almost never ending task. A more general approach to identifying flower wasps begins by noting the existence of flower wasps might surprise people. When the subject is pollination, bees often take center stage. However, not only do some adult wasps nectar on flowers, they often fly around them all day in search of larval food.

The representative species of flower wasps presented here come from a handful of different wasp families. It begins with Scoliid wasps, a primarily southern group. As the pictures show, physical characteristics such as colorful spots on the abdomen and/or eye color can help identify some of the flower wasps.

picture of a sand wasp

Sometimes Scoliid wasps go by the name Sand wasps. Adults nectar on flowers. Additionally, they are solitary nest builders that often build in loose soil near gardens.

picture of a cuckoo wasp

The iridescent blue or green of Cuckoo wasps (Family Chrysididae) helps them stand on atop most flowers. Like other cuckoo species, they are parasitic nesters, laying their eggs in another wasps’s nest. Cuckoo wasps have a continent wide presence.

picture of a Tiphiid Wasps

Another family of flower wasps, Tiphiid Wasps, can be identified by thin, long bodies and a hooked appendage at the end of the abdomen.

picture of a potter wasp, How to Identify Wasps series
Of course, not all wasps fall into the Crabronidae family. Enlarges petioles between the body parts make for a funky group of potter wasps, another group of flower wasps. Basically, the presentation shows that wasps from a variety of families frequent gardens across the country. Because they kill caterpillars and other potential garden and yard pests, they are considered beneficial insects.