Like sunshine and sandy beaches, wasps are a natural part of summer. In fact, swatting a hovering wasp away from your juicy watermelon has become somewhat of a summer tradition in most places. But have you ever wondered where wasps go during the winter months?
A large majority of a wasp colony won’t live through the winter. The ones that survive (mainly fertile queens) do so because they find a suitable place to hibernate. Wasps look for areas to provide them protection and will hibernate in your home, the ground, wood and trees, and within debris.
It’s very easy to stumble across a hidden and hibernating nest. This is especially true during early spring when you’re most likely to be picking up debris and clutter. Knowing where wasps will spend their winters can help you eliminate these areas from your home and lawn, reduce your chance of having a problem next year, and help prevent any unwanted encounters.
Do Wasps Survive Cold Winters?
Some insects (including dragonfly nymphs and some species of tick) can survive the winter, but are wasps one of those insects?
According to a study published in the Journal of Insect Physiology, wasps become inactive when temperatures drop to 70 degrees Fahrenheit or below. During this time, wasps won’t fly but may still be active inside the nest.
Freezing temperatures will kill most social wasps except for fertile queens, who will find places to hibernate through the winter.
A queen wasp will hibernate by finding a sheltered spot and tucking its antennae and wings around its body. Depending on what type of wasp the queen is, she’ll either produce glycerol (which acts as an antifreeze in the blood) or freeze solid as a result of ice forming around the cells.
Wasps nesting in your home can survive the winter since the temperatures inside won’t drop below freezing. However, they still need a source of food and water. Since the main purpose of the colony is to keep the queen alive, food may be rationed and fed to her, but this means that many wasps won’t survive the winter if there’s a lack of food.
Where Wasps Go During the Winter & Hibernate
Social wasps live in colonies inside of nests that they construct throughout the summer. Unfortunately, they cannot survive cold weather, and so most of the wasps will perish. The ones who survive (mostly queens) do so by finding a sheltered place to hibernate through the winter.
According to the University of Delaware, a queen wasp can lay as many as 1,500 eggs a day, and up to 250,000 eggs a season. However, they’ll only lay eggs in fully constructed cells, and will only lay as many eggs as there are cells in the nest.
For a long time, researchers thought the female workers were infertile females, but new research has shown many of these female workers are potential queens whose reproductive capabilities are turned off.
This means many of the female workers could become new queens!
One nest could produce as many as 200 new queens. During the winter, queens leave the nest to mate and find protected places to spend the winter hibernating.
You may stumble across an area housing dozens of hibernating queens. This is not a nest. Rather, since there are limited areas to hibernate in, some queens will hibernate together. However, in the fall, they’ll all go their separate ways, hoping to start a colony of their own.
But where do wasps go in the winter?
Wasps Will Nest Inside Your Home
During the spring, queens will come out of hibernation and search for a suitable place to create a new nest. Unfortunately, this can sometimes be inside your home. Wasps can build nests in ceilings, attics, walls, and basements.
If the nest is active throughout the summer (and temperatures don’t drop below freezing), it could overwinter in your house. During this time, the queen will stop laying eggs and may sleep or hibernate.
Female workers and male drones may survive if there is enough food, but they’ll be docile!
You might think this would be a safe time to remove the nest. However, because of a lack of food and an urge to keep the queen alive, wasps may become extremely aggressive in the winter. If you find an overwintering nest, call a professional in your area for advice.
Queens look for nesting spots that provide protection, safety, access to materials they can use to build their nest, and a food source. Your home checks many of these boxes. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make your home less attractive to new queens.
Wasps are formidable insects, but they have a few predators. Many species of birds, reptiles, and even other insects call wasps dinner.
When trying to find a place to nest, queens look for areas that aren’t easily accessible to other predatory animals, and your home is a pre-built fortress.
You can do several things to ensure wasps do not nest inside your house:
- Seal any cracks or crevices along the outside border of your home
- Keep bushes and grasses from touching the walls of your house
- Replace old or damaged wood and siding
- Inspect screens for rips or tears that a wasp could pass through
- Look for gaps along the edges of doors or pet access doors
- Put screens on any laundry or exhaust vents
Besides protection, a queen will also look for a viable food source when trying to find a place to nest, and many species of wasps are known for feeding on human food.
You can read our full list of the ways that wasps get into your house here.
They will eat both sugary foods and foods rich in protein. For example, you may find a yellowjacket feasting on rotting fruit or slurping up spilled ice cream.
You can reduce the chance of a wasp nesting in your home by following the steps below:
- Cover garbage cans
- Pick up fruit and vegetables that have fallen from trees and bushes
- Don’t leave food on decks or patios
- Keep hummingbird feeders away from your home
Additionally, there are many scents that wasps avoid, and you can use these to keep wasps away from your house!
Wasps Hibernate In the Ground
Not all wasp species will build nests in structures or trees. Instead, they prefer to go underground. The entrance to the nest is visible as a small hole in the ground, but otherwise, the rest of the nest is invisible.
According to the College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences, yellowjackets build underground nests that can reach up to four feet in diameter and contain as many as 1,500 wasps. That’s huge!
During the winter, the queen will hibernate in deep underground burrows or other protected locations, such as tree stumps or logs.
You don’t have to worry if you find an abandoned nest underground. Yellowjackets don’t rescue old nests and won’t return to the site again next year. However, you can seal the hole to prevent other insects from invading the nest in the future.
It’s impossible to know where underground a queen will hibernate, so you should focus on keeping the emerging queens from entering bothersome areas in the spring rather than trying to eliminate hibernating queens.
Although most yellowjackets will nest underground, some species can be found nesting inside the walls or ceilings of your home. Because they can become aggressive, especially in the fall when food becomes scarce, it’s a good idea to contact a local professional to talk about your options.
Many solitary wasp species nest underground as well. As they burrow, the wasps pull dirt up out of the ground and deposit it by the entrance of the nest.
This creates a cylindrical pile of dirt (similar to those found by the entrances of ant hills), which can be used to identify an underground burrow.
You might see many of these piles of dirt in one area, but this doesn’t mean there’s a large nest. Some solitary wasp species are gregarious, so they nest close to one another without becoming one nest.
Solitary wasps are typically parasitic and won’t bother humans unless you bother them first. For many of these wasp species, it’s the larvae that will hibernate over winter in the ground before emerging in the spring.
If you’d like to learn more, check out our guide on where wasps go during the day!
Wasps Hibernate In Leaf Litter or Wood Piles
Most species of social wasps will abandon their nests when temperatures drop. Male drones go searching for new queens to mate with before succumbing to the cold. New queens will mate, becoming fertile, before finding a place to hibernate through the winter.
Wasps look for any area that will offer them suitable protection through the winter. This can be under leaf litter, in woodpiles, in old logs, under the bark of trees, or in other small spaces.
Although one solitary wasp hibernating through the winter may not be a problem now, they can become a nuisance in the spring when they build a new colony.
You can reduce the chance of wasps staying nearby by eliminating possible hibernation areas around your home:
- Clean up piles of leaves and other debris
- Remove old, rotten stumps and logs from your property
- Replace old, rotten wood in decks and porches
- Look for small areas where a wasp might hibernate
- Seal up playhouses and treehouses during the winter
- Bring in birdhouses or routinely check them for unwanted pests
- Put tarps or build structures around wood piles
Wasps are drawn to different colors, and learning about the colors wasps are attracted to could help you spot any potential hibernation areas as well!
How To Determine If A Wasp Nest Is Active
Knowing whether a nest is abandoned or active is important because it will dictate your next steps. But how do you know if a wasp’s nest is active?
You can usually tell if a wasp nest is active or abandoned by watching for wasp activity and listening for buzzing noises.
If wasps are hovering around or crawling on the outside surfaces of the vespiary, it’s likely still active. If you observe wasps flying in and out of the entrance, it’s an active nest. Wasps return to the nest at night (except for the European hornet), so watching for activity in the evening is a good way to gauge whether the nest is still active.
You can also check for activity by watching the shape and size of the nest to see if it grows each day. According to the Journal of Insect Science, wasps produce a mixture of plant fibers (which they chew up) and saliva to form the paper-like envelopes and combs of their nest.
They then lay the mixture in layers to build the structures that make up the nest (much like a mason would lay bricks). Wasps are extremely productive and will often work around the clock.
In addition to insect activity, a loud buzzing noise can usually be heard from within larger nests.
However, since hornets can become aggressive when their nest is approached, you should only get close enough to listen for buzzing when you have seen no insect activity around the nest.
You can learn more about the sounds wasps make and how to identify them here!
Some people like to look for old nests at the end of autumn for decorative purposes. While we don’t recommend approaching a nest without consulting a professional, you can take a look at our guide on getting rid of a wasp nest without getting stung!
Signs Of A Wasp Nest
Nowhere are several signs that you can watch for to determine if a nest is nearby. The most common signs to watch for include:
- A continuous buzzing noise
- Swarming wasps
- Tubular mud structures on your home or other structures
- A noticeable nest
- A flight path back to a nest
Wasps hunt and prey on smaller insects, which can be beneficial if you don’t want these insects eating your garden.
However, you probably don’t want them visiting the areas where you spend a lot of time. If you want a continuous trap, take a look these solar wasp traps!
What Kinds Of Wasps May Be Near My Home?
North America is home to thousands of wasp species. Since different species have different hibernating patterns, it’s important to understand what type of wasp you might be dealing with.
Although there are thousands of species, only about 50 of them are stinging wasps. These species are further classified as either solitary or social.
If you’d like a general breakdown, take a look at our piece on the main honey bee and wasp differences here.
Some of the most common social wasps that people encounter include:
- Umbrella Wasps
- Paper Wasps
Social wasps live in multigenerational colonies and have one egg-laying queen. Eggs the queen lays will grow to become either fertile males or sterile females.
Males will later mate with queen wasps, but they do very little else. Domestic chores are left to the female wasps.
In autumn, when temperatures drop, the colony will abandon the nest it has worked so hard to create. The fertile males will leave and search for a mateable queen.
The queen will embark on a mating flight, where she’ll find drones to mate with before finding a safe place to hibernate for the winter.
his leaves sterile female workers. While some of them may find a spot to hunker down for the winter, many of them won’t survive the cold weather.
Social wasps only use a nest once, and they abandon this nest in the fall.
For all of these wasps, you’ll most likely use wasp spray if you find them near your home!
The other type of stinging wasp is the solitary wasp. Examples of solitary wasps include:
- Cicada Killer Wasp
- Mud Daubers
- Digger Wasps
- Thread Waisted Wasps
- Spider Hawk Wasp
- Sand Wasps
Solitary wasps live by themselves in holes they create in mud, wood, or the ground. Where you’ll find a solitary wasp will depend on what type of species it’s.
For example, mud daubers build their nests from clay or mud, while cicada killer wasps build their homes underground.
Unlike social wasps, solitary wasps don’t look after their young. After laying her eggs and providing the future larvae with a food source, the queen abandons the nest.
Solitary wasps live alone and build nests for their offspring, who will abandon the nest once they have matured.
How To Tell What Kind Of Wasp Is In Your Yard
It’s easy to spot a wasp—just look for the person running from it! Jokes aside, since different species of wasp nest in different locations, being able to identify what type of wasp you’re running from will be important if you want to find the nest.
Yellowjackets, hornets, and paper wasps are some of the most common wasps a homeowner will find in their yard. You can identify them by their color, size, personality, and nests.
- Yellowjackets are a species of wasp with many subspecies, including the bald-faced hornet. They are more aggressive than other wasps, so it’s a good idea to consult a professional before trying to eliminate a nest on your own. Yellowjackets are identifiable by their distinct waist, yellow and black coloring, and underground nests.
- Most people believe hornets are a classification of their own, but they’re a type of social wasp. There are several species of hornet, but the most common types are the bald-faced hornet and the European hornet.
- Bald-faced hornets are a type of yellowjacket, but their markings have a whitish hue. They can be identified by looking at their abdomen’s underside. While the top side will have yellow or white markings, the underside will be black. Unlike other yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets don’t build their nests underground. Instead, they can be found in high places, such as the tops of trees.
- European hornets can grow to be one and a half inches in size and have a noticeably reddish head. Interestingly, European hornets are one of the few species of hornets that are active at night. You may see them flying around lights long after other wasps have returned to the nest.
When you think of a wasp, you likely think of the slender paper wasp. They’re quickly identified by their dangling legs and paper-like nests. They’ll often have banded abdomens.
Knowing how to identify the different insects around your home and garden can be helpful in many ways. Is something eating your tomatoes? Are weird bugs slinking out of your shower drain?
Quickly identify and learn about all the insects around your home with this North American Guide to Insects and Spiders!
That’s A Wrap!
Since wasps aren’t built to withstand cold temperatures, most wasps will perish during the winter months.
The ones who survive (typically queens) do so because they find a place to hibernate. Even then, a vast majority of hibernating queens won’t make it through the winter.
Knowing where the small insects might try to hibernate is important because it can help you eliminate these areas from your home and reduce the chances of finding wasp nests on your property next summer.
Happy wasp repelling!
Kafer, H., Kovac, H., & Stabentheiner, A. (2012). Resting metabolism and critical thermal maxima of vespine wasps (Vespula sp..). Journal of Insect Physiology, 58(5), 679-689.
Montagna, T. S., Torres, V. O., Fernandes, W. D., & Antonialli-Junior, W. F. (2010). Nest Architecture, colony productivity, and duration of immature stages in a social wasp, mischocyttarus consimilis. Journal of Insect Science, 10(191), 1-12.
Sheehan, M. J., & Tibbetts, E. A. (2008). Robust long-term social memories in a paper wasp. Current Biology, 18(18), R851-R852.
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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