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Paper wasps of the Afrotropical Region

(Life: Kingdom: Metazoa (animals); Phylum: Arthropoda; Class: Hexapoda; Order: Hymenoptera; Superfamily: Vespoidea; Family: Vespidae)


Belonogaster Saussure,1853

Polistes Latreille,1802

Polybioides Buysson, 1913

Ropalidia Guérin-Méneville, 1831




Social, constructing communal paper nests usually comprising a single comb (double comb in Polybiodes), which may be arranged vertically or horizontally. The comb is usually exposed, but in Polybioides the  comb is enclosed in a thin, brittle paper covering. Larvae are fed on chewed-up, soft-bodied insects such as caterpillars.


New nests are started in spring by a fertilized female who has overwintered in a sheltered position, often together with other mated females.  She begins by constructing a strong stalk attached to a branch within a bush, under a rock overhang, or under the eaves of a roof. The stalk and subsequent downward hanging hexagonal cells are made from chewed up plant fibres mixed with saliva, producing a tough papery material that is also very light. The hexagonal cells are added in ever increasing concentric circles away from the central stalk, which is smeared with a dark ant-repellent secretion produced by her abdominal glands. This prevents predatory ants from raiding the nest.


The foundress female lays an egg at the bottom of each cell she has constructed. On hatching the larva is fed pellets of chewed up caterpillars. Once the larva reaches maturity the cell is capped and the larva pupates. On emerging, this first generation of new wasps, which are the foundress female's daughters, assist with nest building and raising their siblings. They are unable to mate as there are no males in the colony at this stage. The ovaries of these workers do not develop and are maintained in this condition by aggressive behaviour exerted towards these individuals by the foundress queen. With some species the foundress queen is joined by other mated females who also lay eggs. Rival females eat each other's eggs until one female achieves dominance.


The worker females are responsible for hunting caterpillars and presenting the chewed up bolus to the larvae in the cells, which then bite off pieces. The larvae regurgitate saliva, which is consumed by the worker female. This transfer of saliva (trophallaxis) provides the worker with essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins and probably also enzymes, that she cannot make herself. Larvae are occasionally given the feeding response by workers or the queen without food presentation to solicit saliva for their own consumption. Returning workers are also sometimes forced to give up their food provision by females higher up the dominance hierarchy. The queen never leaves the nest and is fed by the workers. Nest defense is achieved via very painful stings delivered by the workers. Stings are not barbed and the females can administer venom repeatedly.


The haplo-diploid method of sex determination in Hymenoptera (where unfertilized eggs give rise to males and fertilized eggs to females) means that sisters share 75% of their genes, but only 50% of their genes are shared with their daughters. Hence, a female who helps raise her sisters (some of whom will develop into queens) and does not lay her own eggs contributes to her own reproductive success, since she is getting a greater proportion of her own genes into the next generation (75% of her genes) than if she raised her own off-spring (50% of her genes). This is the basis of Kin selection theory and is thought to be one of the reasons why sociality has evolved so many times within the Hymenoptera, whereas it has only evolved once in the other insects (in the termites).


By autumn the queen has no more sperm left and lays unfertilized eggs, which give rise to males. The colony breaks up and the males disperse to mate with females from other colonies, after which they die. The mated females then go into diapause to overwinter, ready to start new colonies the following spring.


Summarized from various sources, including O'Toole, 1995; Holm, 2008.


Benadé PC, Veldtman R, Samways MJ & Roets F. 2014. Rapid range expansion of the invasive wasp Polistes dominula (Hymenoptera: Vespidae: Polistinae) and first record of parasitoids on this species and the native Polistes marginalis in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. African Entomology 22(1): 220-225. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4001/003.022.0104

Bequaert, J.C. 1918. A revision of the Vespidae of the Belgian Congo based on the collection of the American Museum Congo Expedition: with a list of Ethiopian diplopterous wasps. Bulletin of the AMNH 39: 1-384.

Brooks RW & Wahl DB. 1987. Biology and mature larva of Hemipimpla pulchripennis (Saussure), a parasite of Rhopalidia (Hymenoptera: Ichneumonidae, Vespidae). Journal of the New York Entomological Society. 95: 547–552.

Brothers, D.J. & Finnamore A.T. 1993. Superfamily Vespoidea (pp. 161-278). In GOULET, H. & HUBER, J. (eds). Hymenoptera of the World: an identification guide to families. Research Branch, Agriculture Canada, Ottawa, Canada, 668 pp.

Carpenter, J. M. & M. Madl. 2009. A catalogue of the Vespidae of the Malagasy Subregion (Insecta, Hymenoptera). Linzer Biologische Beiträge 41 (2): 1871-1935.

Gess, S.K. & Gess, F.W. 2014. Wasps and bees in southern Africa. SANBI Biodiversity Series 24. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria. 320 pp.

Guilherme J.L. & Wit, P. 2015. First records for Guinea-Bissau of Vitelline Masked Weaver and its nesting association with a paper wasp. ABC Bulletin 22: 200 - 203.

Holm, E. 2008. Insectlopedia of southern Africa. LAPA publishers (Pty) Ltd, Pretoria.

Keeping MG & Crewe RM. 1983. Parasitoids, commensals and colony size in nests of Belonogaster (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Journal of the Entomological Society of Southern Africa. 46: 309–323.

O'Toole, C. 1995. Alien Empire: an exploration of the lives of insects. BBC Books, BBC Worldwide Limited, London.

Picker, M., Griffiths, C & Weaving, A. 2002. Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.

Polašek O, Bellingan T, van Noort S. 2022. A new species of paper wasp from the genus Ropalidia Guérin-Méneville from South Africa (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Journal of Hymenoptera Research 90: 213–222. https://doi.org/10.3897/jhr.90.81581

Richards, O.W. 1982. A revision of the genus Belonogaster de Saussure (Hymenoptera: Vespidae). Bull. Brit. Mus. Nat. Hist. Entomol 44: 31–114.

van Zyl C, Addison P, Veldtman R. 2018. The invasive Vespidae in South Africa: potential management strategies and current status. African Entomology 26: 267-285. http://dx.doi.org/10.4001/003.026.0267


Photographs © Vida van der Walt (Pretoria) or © Marian Oliver (Cape Town) or © Simon van Noort (Iziko Museums of South Africa), or © Mike Picker & Charles Griffiths (University of Cape Town) or Alan Weaving (published in Struik's Field Guide to Insects of South Africa).

Web author Simon van Noort (Iziko South African Museum)


Citation: van Noort, S. 2024. WaspWeb: Hymenoptera of the World. URL: www.waspweb.org (accessed on <day/month/year>).

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