Red-Headed Paper Wasps – A Quick Guide

The red-headed paper wasp, Polistes erythrocephalus, is found in central and South America. It is about 2 cm or 0.8 inches long.

Where do red-headed paper wasps nest?

They look for sheltered dry spaces off the ground in which to build nests. This often attracts them to build nests on buildings in the eaves and other sheltered locations such as under bridges. As with all paper wasps, they make their nests by chewing wood into pulp and forming complex paper structures. In rural areas, the nests can be found on isolated trees.

Is the sting of the red-headed paper wasp painful?

They have a very painful sting, ranking highly on the Schmidt insect pain index. Their sting ranks as the 6th most painful among all wasp species included in the study. Schmidt who conducted the research described the sting as “Immediate. Irrationally intense, and unrelenting. This is as close as you will get to see the blue of a flame from within the fire.” See which wasps have the most painful stings here.

Red headed paper wasp
Polistes erythrocephalus – from Cradley, Malvern, U.K, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What preys on red-headed paper wasps?

Army ants are known to be a big threat to wasps in South America and will attack their nests. Attracted by the wasp larvae they attack in very large numbers making it extremely difficult to defend against and rendering the powerful sting of the red-headed paper wasp useless. Attacks will often end in the destruction of the nest.

How long do red-headed paper wasps live?

They have relatively short adult lives only living an average of 45 days. During this time they spend most of their time providing food for the next generation of adults. They prey on the larva of other insects including hornworm lava. They take these larvae back to feed the brood in their nests.

How long do their colonies survive?

Their colonies usually only survive as long as their founding queen, which is roughly 6 months. After this new queens having recently mated will seek out new sites to establish new nests and found new colonies. Workers from new colonies will take the paper from old nests to expand new nests. Only females found and build the new colony. Males are only produced once a colony is established.

How do red-headed paper wasps decide who will be queen?

Foundresses fight to decide who will be queen. Red headed paper wasps will initially found a colony with around 5 foundresses. They assist in the initial establishment of a new nest, but only one of them will ultimately be the queen of the colony. Sometimes these fights are fatal with any surviving foundresses submitting to the new queen.

Are red-headed paper wasps useful for anything?

They are valued by tobacco companies. They prey on leaf-eating worms that otherwise eat tobacco leaves and as such are natural protection for tobacco crops. Their nests have been moved to border tobacco fields for this function.

Source: Young, Allen M. “Natural History Notes on the Social Paper Wasp Polistes Erythrocephalus Latreille (Hymenoptera: Vespidae: Polistinae) in Costa Rica.” Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, vol. 59, no. 4, 1986, pp. 712–722. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Jan. 2021.