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A wasp is any insect of the order Hymenoptera and suborder Apocrita that is neither bee nor ant. The suborder Symphyta includes the sawflies and wood wasps, which differ from members of Apocrita by having a broader connection between the mesosoma and metasoma. In addition to this, Symphyta larvae are mostly herbivorous and "caterpillarlike", whereas those of Apocrita are largely predatory or "parasitic" (technically known as parasitoid).
The most familiar wasps belong to Aculeata, a division of Apocrita, whose ovipositors are adapted into a venomous stinger. Aculeata also contains ants and bees. In this respect, insects called "velvet ants" (the family Mutillidae) are technically wasps.
A much narrower and simpler but popular definition of the term wasp is any member of the Aculeate family Vespidae, which includes (among others) the genera known in North America as yellowjackets (Vespula and Dolichovespula) and hornets (Vespa).
The various species of wasp fall into one of two main categories: solitary wasps and social wasps. Adult solitary wasps generally live and operate alone, and most do not construct nests; all adult solitary wasps are fertile. By contrast, social wasps exist in colonies numbering up to several thousand strong and build nests—but in some cases not all of the colony can reproduce. Generally, just the queen and male wasps can mate, whilst the majority of the colonies are made up of sterile female workers.
The following characteristics are present in most wasps:
two pairs of wings (except wingless or brachypterous forms in all female Mutillidae, Bradynobaenidae, many male Agaonidae, many female Ichneumonidae, Braconidae, Tiphiidae, Scelionidae, Rhopalosomatidae, Eupelmidae, and various other families). An ovipositor, or stinger (which is only present in females because it derives from the ovipositor, a female sex organ). Few or no hairs (in contrast to bees); except Mutillidae, Bradynobaenidae, Scoliidae. Nearly all wasps are terrestrial; only a few specialized parasitic groups are aquatic. Predators or parasitoids, mostly on other terrestrial insects; some species of Pompilidae, such as the tarantula hawk, specialize in using spiders as prey, and various parasitic wasps use spiders or other arachnids as reproductive hosts. Wasps are critically important in natural biocontrol. Almost every pest insect species has a wasp species that is a predator or parasite upon it. Parasitic wasps are also increasingly used in agricultural pest control as they have little impact on crops. Wasps also constitute an important part of the food chain.
Anatomically, there is a great deal of variation between different species of wasp. Like all insects, wasps have a hard exoskeleton covering their 3 main body parts. These parts are known as the head, metasoma and mesosoma. Wasps also have a constricted region joining the first and second segments of the abdomen (the first segment is part of the mesosoma, the second is part of the metasoma) known as the petiole. Like all insects, wasps have 3 sets of 2 legs. In addition to their compound eyes, wasps also have several simple eyes known as ocelli. These are typically arranged in a triangular formation just forward of an area of the head known as the vertex.
It is possible to distinguish between certain wasp species genders based on the number of divisions on their antennae. Male Yellowjacket wasps for example have 13 divisions per antenna, while females have 12. Males can in some cases be differentiated from females by virtue of the fact that the upper region of the male's mesosoma(called the tergum) consists of an additional terga. The total number of terga is typically 6. The difference between sterile female worker wasps and queens also varies between species but generally the queen is noticeably larger than both males and other females.
With most species, adult parasitic wasps themselves do not take any nutrients from their prey, and, much like bees, butterflies, and moths, they typically derive all of their nutrition from nectar. Parasitic wasps are typically parasitoids, and extremely diverse in habits, many laying their eggs in inert stages of their host (egg or pupa), or sometimes paralyzing their prey by injecting it with venom through their ovipositor. They then insert one or more eggs into the host or deposit them upon the host externally. The host remains alive until the parasitoid larvae are mature, usually dying either when the parasitoids pupate, or when they emerge as adults.
The type of nest produced by wasps can depend on the species and location. Many social wasps produce paper pulp nests on trees, in attics, holes in the ground or other such sheltered areas with access to the outdoors. By contrast solitary wasps are generally parasitic or predatory and only the latter build nests at all. Unlike honey bees, wasps have no wax producing glands. Many instead create a paper-like substance primarily from wood pulp. Wood fibers are gathered locally from weathered wood, softened by chewing and mixing with saliva. The pulp is then used to make combs with cells for brood rearing. More commonly, nests are simply burrows excavated in a substrate (usually the soil, but also plant stems), or, if constructed, they are constructed from mud.
The nests of some social wasps, such as hornets, are first constructed by the queen and reach about the size of a walnut before sterile female workers take over construction. The queen initially starts the nest by making a single layer or canopy and working outwards until she reaches the edges of the cavity. Beneath the canopy she constructs a stalk to which she can attach several cells; these cells are where the first eggs will be laid. The queen then continues to work outwards to the edges of the cavity after which she adds another tier. This process is repeated, each time adding a new tier until eventually enough female workers have been born and matured to take over construction of the nest leaving the queen to focus on reproduction. For this reason, the size of a nest is generally a good indicator of approximately how many female workers there are in the colony. Social wasp colonies often have populations exceeding several thousand female workers and at least one queen. Polistes and some related types of paper wasp do not construct their nests in tiers but rather in flat single combs.