Yellowjacket Pictures and Identification

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Yellowjacket pitures actually begins with a video clip of some ground nesting yellowjackets to highlight the fact that they are social insects that live in a nest.

Three types or genera of yellowjackets inhabit all parts of the United States.

  • Aerial Nesters: genus Dolichovespula
  • Ground Nesters: genus Vespula
  • Hornets: genus Vespa
The dichotomy between aerial and ground nesting yellowjackets is not perfect. Sometimes the aerial nesters do build ground nests. Sometimes the ground nesters build aerial nests. With a few exceptions, the aerial nesters tend to be northern species. Perhaps it is because northern grounds are too cold most of the year to support the nesting process.

Regardless of their nest building habits, all yellowjackets cause concern because as social insects, they live in large groups and when the nest needs defending they can sting multiple times without losing their stinger. In most instances the stings are painful and, they could be life threatening to some people.

Their numbers appear to increase toward the end of the summer because the colony begins to disperse after the rearing of the young ends. Basically, they interrupt picnics and such in search of sweets.

In colder climates only the queen survives and overwinters to begin the nesting process anew. In warmer climates nest building can be a year round business. Recent media reports have noted the existence of very large nests in some areas of the Southeast capable of hosting hundreds of thousands of yellowjackets.

A quick look around the house and yard shows that aerial nests can be build in trees, in walls, on utility poles, or on house eaves.

The ground nesters don’t actually dig out areas for their nests. Rather they use any type of existing hole, including abandoned rodent burrows as a starter. Tree cavities are a favorite spot in instances where they go above ground.

A recent article entitled The Vespinae of North America published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research (28: 37–65 (2012)) lays out the current yellowjacket typology, along with general species identification tips and range.

In total, twenty one different species have been documented. A quick scroll down the page reveals a handful of yellowjacket pictures that show a contrast between species.

Five of the species, for example, have black and white or off white coloration rather than the traditional yellow coloration. This review posts yellowjacket pictures and identification tips based on the information provided by the paper.

Yellowjacket Pictures: Dolichovespula


Bald-faced Hornet, yellowjacket pictures
Three of the six species of aerial yellowjackets have black bodies with white markings.

The picture shows a Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata), the most wide ranging of the species. A black snipe down the middle of the white face and a small portion of white markings on the bottom of the abdomen are the key identification clues.

Dolichovespula albida – The Arctic Yellowjacket inhabits subalpine boreal forests from Alaska to Maine.

Dolichovespula arctica – Parasitic Yellowjackets have a fairly extensive range across the north and central areas of the United States.

picture of a Sandhills hornet or common aerial yellowjacket, yellowjacket pictures
Common aerial yellowjackets (Dolichovespula arenaria) go by a few names, including sandhills hornet. It’s the most wide ranging of the species with the traditional yellow jacket. Like most of the aerial species, it lives in the north, specifically the boreal forests along the northern tier of the United States.

Rocky Mountain Aerial Yellowjackets (Dolichovespula alpicola) another mountain species, also live in northern boreal forests. In the West they can also be found from Alaska, south as far as Arizona and New Mexico along the Rocky Mountains.

Northern Aerial Yellowjackets (Dolichovespula norvegicoides) also go by the name Canadian Aerial Yellowjacket. They range in the north and in areas of the south with mountain ranges. A thinner yellow pattern on the body helps distinguish them from other yellowjackets.

Hornets: Vespa


picture of a European Hornet yellowjacket
Despite the common name hornet given to a variety of yellowjackets, European Hornets (Vespa crabro) are the only true hornets with any range in the United States. First introduced in the 19th century, its range has spread to most states east of the Mississippi river.

They also build aerial nests.

Single reports for two additional, introduced species, the Lesser-banded Hornet (Vespa affinis) and Vespa simillima have been reported in Los Angeles and British Columbia, respectively.

Ground Nesting Yellowjackets (Vespula)


picture of a blackjacket
Thirteen differen ground nestinng yellowjackets also live in most areas of the United States. Two of them, including the Blackjacket in the picture, have black and white bodies.

Blackjackets have more white markings on the abdomen compared to the more common Bald-faced hornets. They also lack a black stripe down the center of the white face. They are traditionally not your basic back yard yellowjacket.

Northern Red-banded Yellowjackets are the other black and white ground nesters. The presence of some red on the body is the best field identification clue. They live in the far northern Nearctic Region.

picture of an Eastern Yellowjacket
The common names often explain their range. For example, the Eastern Yellowjacket is comonn in the Eastern United States.

picture of a Western Yellowjacket
Here’s a Western Yellowjacket. Note the similarities of the body patterns. Different sizes of the anchor marks on the abdomen differentiate them.

picture of a Southern Yellowjacket, yellowjacket pictures
The lines down the thorax are the best field identification clue for the Southern Yellowjacket.

California Yellowjackets (Vespula sulphurea) also have stripes on thee thorax. They are fairly common in mid elevation and wildland areas in the West.

picture of a Downy Yellowjacket
The remaining yellowjacket pictures in this section cover some common species. Downy Yellowjackets range extends in the eastern United States as far south as Georgia. Look for a yellowjacket with a hairy body, hence the common name.

picture of a German Yellowjacket
German Yellowjackets (Vespula germanica), another introduced species, are fairly common in the Eastern U.S. They can also be found in California.

picture of an Alaska Yellowjacket
Sometimes it’s called the Alaska yellowjacket. However, Vespula alascensis is fairly widespread in the northern half of the United States.

Here’s a quick run down of the other four ground nesters.

  • Forest Yellowjackets (Vespula acadica)are boreal species that live in Alaska and further south in the Rocky, Sierra, Cascade, Siskiyou and Appalachian mountains.
  • Vespula atropilosa – Prairie Yellowjackets actually inhabit mountain regions from the Rocky Mountains west. Range: Vespula atropilosa occurs in mountain regions from the Rocky Mountains west.
  • Vespula infernalis – Cuckoo Yellowjacket This is an obligatory social parasite of Vespula acadica Range: The distribution of Vespula austriaca closely resembles that of acadica, occurring in subarctic Alaska and Canada, and southward in the western mountain ranges.
  • Vespula vidua – Range: Vespula vidua occurs in the Transition and Upper Austral Zones of eastern North America.