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What to do about a wasp nest and what do they look like?

28 May 2019 ( 07 June 2022 )

We aren’t the only ones to welcome warmer weather - wasps do too and they could be sharing your home. Find out how to identify a wasp nest and what to do about it.

Wasp nest
A papery wasp nest

When queen wasps emerge from winter hibernation, their mission is to find a suitable place to build their new nests. Among their favoured locations are sheds, lofts and holes in the ground but choosing the site is just the start of potential problems for homeowners. As no male wasps survive the winter queens will often work in groups, with one queen becoming dominant. The other queens then become her first workers.

How wasp nests are made

To build the nest, or hive, the queen wasp needs fresh wood which she chews, shreds and mixes with saliva to create a papier mache-like material. Fence panels, sheds, gates and wooden window frames are all ideal places for wasps to nest. In fact, if you notice small white lines on fence panels or sheds, it’s quite probably a sign that a wasp nest is not far away.

Building the nest

The queen has to make sure that her nest is secured to something solid like a roof rafter where she’ll build a centre stalk around which to add cells. These cells are where she’ll lay eggs. A spell of relentless activity follows as the queen must find food for the hatching larvae and keep building cells until the first brood of adult wasps has hatched and takes over the building work.

Early signs of a wasp nest

Building a wasp nest takes all summer and they look like rather dull, cement-coloured bees’ nests. The largest nest recorded in the UK was over six feet by five feet. But of course, you want to spot one well before it reaches anything like that; they start about the size of a golf ball and are usually distinguishable by swirling patterns on the outside. A small wasp nest early in the year can usually be dislodged safely with a long stick or pole but certainly not once it and its inhabitants are increasing.

Obviously, once the wasps have hatched and are flying about, you should be able to notice if they’re going to and from the same place – a small entrance hole or under the eaves, for example.

Wasp nest stages

  • The queen locates a suitable place for a nest
  • Old wood is stripped and turned into paper paste
  • The start of a wasp nest is a centre stalk is built somewhere secure and dry
  • Papery cells are are added bit-by-bit to the centre stalk, and the queen begins to lay her eggs
  • The wasp nest continues to grow as cells are added over the spring and summer months
  • Nests are only used for one year, by late autumn it will be abandoned

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What does a wasp nest look like?

Wasp nests usually look like papery grey balloons, and often have an intricate swirly pattern on the outside, with cells visible from the bottom. Wasp nests can be very colourful if the wasps chew up coloured paper to make their nest. 

Wasp nests in sheds

Understandably garden sheds can be popular nesting sites for wasps. They're dry, sheltered and quiet. If wasp nests are a recurring problem in your shed it's worth blocking any holes in the wall, roof or door, especially in early spring when wasps are looking for new nesting sites.

If you do have a wasp nest in your shed you can leave it and the wasps will move on in the autumn, but if you use your shed often you can call in an expert to remove it.

What to do with a wasp nest

Although damage to wood can be unsightly and may weaken the structure, the real concern for householders is the wasps themselves. A British summer wouldn’t be the same without wasps ruining a picnic, barbecue or outdoor pub lunch. If you're lucky you will find the start of a wasp nest while it's still small and can be dislodged, but by the time the wasps are becoming bothersome, searching for food, they’ll have established squatting rights in a nest somewhere nearby and dislodging becomes a risk.

If you're planning on destroying a nest it’s really best to call in pest control experts as wasps can be extremely aggressive and will sting en masse to protect their nests. Besides, any pesticides or other extermination techniques used will be dependent on where the nest is in relation to people, pets and property. Some home emergency protection insurance policies include cover for dealing with wasps and other pests and in some instances, local authorities may be able to help.

Before calling in the pest controllers it's worth knowing that wasps can be beneficial in the garden, as long as their nest is out of the way, as they eat flies, caterpillars, aphids and other garden pests, including the dreaded cabbage white butterfly caterpillars.

Be safe

It’s impossible to guess how many thousands of wasps might be in a nest, but their stings are painful and in some cases can prove fatal so if you are considering tackling it yourself, plan your access and exit routes carefully, and never tackle a nest from a ladder. Always wear protective clothing and headgear that covers your face.

The good news is that wasps don’t return to a nest so once the wasps have died off in the autumn, you won’t get troubled from the same place again.

While wasps can be troublesome, there’s a host of insects out there that can actually provide numerous benefits to your garden. Find out how to encourage helpful insects to your garden.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.