Vespula rufa (L.)   
Red Wasp

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Subphylum: Hexapoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera – bees, wasps & ants

British distribution: Widespread.
World distribution: Information not available at the time of writing, but evidently widespread in Europe and extending through Asia.

Warning: this species is not aggressive but, like other social wasps, it will sting in defence of its nest or if interfered with and, in sensitised individuals, this can lead to life-threatening anaphylactic shock.

Vespula rufa worker, visiting wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), Carmarthenshire, July 2003.

The social wasps are a small group in Britain, with just nine breeding species. They belong to the 'Apocrita Aculeata' group of the Hymenoptera, i.e. that group in which the ovipositor is modified into a sting (functional or otherwise) - a relatively small part of the order but including the bees, the ants and some wasp groups. All the social Hymenoptera belong here - i.e. those insects in which there is a colonial organisation that includes workers as well as functional females and males.

British social wasps comprise the genera:
•   Vespa (one species, the Hornet, Vespa crabro);
•   Vespula (four species: the Common Wasp, Vespula vulgaris; the German Wasp, V. germanica; the Red Wasp, V. rufa; and the Cuckoo Wasp, V. austriaca);
•   Dolichovespula (now four breeding species: the Tree Wasp, D. sylvestris; the Norwegian Wasp, D. norvegica; the Median (or 'Killer') Wasp, D. media; and the Saxon Wasp, D. saxonica). The last two named are recent immigrants into Britain from the continent, well established in the south and D. media in particular showing steady spread northwards.

Vespa crabro forms nests particularly in old, hollow tree trunks in ancient woodland, Dolichovespula species form hanging nests in trees and bushes (as featured in many cartoon films!), while Vespula species are predominantly ground nesting. However, Vespula vulgaris and V. germanica also commonly nest in buildings, including lofts and other places inside houses, and are scavengers that readily become unwelcome guests at picnics.

The Red Wasp, V. rufa, is not such a nuisance to humans. It is a rural species and like other social wasps is a predator of insects (to feed its grubs), quickly stinging them to death, but it does not scavenge for meat. Consequently, the contents of our sandwiches are of little interest to it. The adults themselves feed on nectar from flowers, as seen in the photographs. It occurs throughout Britain and is locally common, but is less intrusive and so less often noticed than its bothersome relatives.
The reddish brown colour around the black bands on the abdomen is diagnostic. The face has a black marking, like an inverted anchor - a feature it shares with V. vulgaris. (Dolochovespula species are facially also somewhat similar.)

Although listed above as a socal wasp, one Vespula species has only males and females, no workers, and this is the Cuckoo Wasp, V. austriaca. It takes over nests of V. rufa, killing the existing queen and somehow fooling the workers into caring for its own grubs instead. It resembles V. rufa but lacks the reddish colouration, and in place of the stem of the 'anchor' on the face it has three small black spots.

A Google seach will bring up other pages on the social wasps, though, as always, there is the possibility that a photograph is not correctly named. In North America, the social wasps are also known as "yellowjackets" - a useful keyword if searching for information. Some useful sites seem to have vanished, but a recommended site is:
•   Hymenoptera 2 - Social Wasps (David Element)
    A valuable page on socal wasps. It includes photographs of the new British arrivals, Dolichovespula saxonica and D. media. Part of his excellent photographic site covering insects and other wildlife.

© A.J. Silverside
Page first hosted at, October 2003; transferred to with minor edits, April 2010, last updated April 2014
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