They don't call them social wasps because they are inclined to invite visitors in for tea and cookies.
There are a few species out there, Vespidae family or wasp species, that are identified as social because they live in colonies. These are familiar here as paper wasps, yellowjackets and bald-face hornets.
On the other side of the coin, there are other similar bugs known as solitary wasps. That's descriptive because these do live individually and not as cooperators in a large communal nest or colony.
Between social and solitary wasps there is a big difference regarding their interaction with humans. We needn't pay solitary wasps much attention because, besides not seeing them in big numbers, we have few difficulties with them.
Well, yes, mud daubers, or dirt daubers, are one of the solitary types that can be an annoyance because they build their small mud nests on our stuff. But despite female solitary wasps being able to sting, they seldom inflict that on humans. A solitary wasp doesn't guard it's one-bug housing with stinger-injected venom.
A solitary wasp might produce a mild sting if it gets trapped or held against your skin, but it never "gets after" you.
Ah, but that's what social wasps do. They live together in sometimes scary numbers, and if something threatens the queendom, they attack. Social wasps are the stingers.
We're near the time when social wasp numbers peak. Their lifecycle is such that a single fertilized queen emerges from a hibernation hideaway in the spring and starts building a nest. She lays a few eggs, hatches out some workers and the chain builds from there.
The queen keeps laying, new workers building and tending to the young, and by summer's end the colony and nest reach maturity. And that's end of the road for most. When cold weather ensues, new queens have been hatched and fertilized, and they go into winter hiding. Each of these emerges in the spring to start a new nest.
All the social wasps except for the queens yield to frosty weather. They die. In most cases, the paper-like nests are never used again.
The social wasps in this year's class are nearing the end of their rope and their numbers are as high as they get about now. It seems the slide toward fall makes them more irritable, perhaps quicker to punish somebody who even innocently blunders near the nest.
Among the social players, probably the most common we encounter are the various species of paper wasps. These run up to about 1 inch long and may be dark brown to black or orangey-red, while another variety is black and yellow, striped like the bees to which they aren't related.
Like all social wasps, the paper wasps have that skinny, tube-like waist between their thorax and the abdomen, the latter which effectively is the insect's butt. The social wasps have a pointy rear on that abdomen, and females of those species each houses a thin, needle-shaped stinger or injector back there to use as a stabbing injector that serves to stun prey when they're hunting or to inflict pain on anything that poses a threat to their colony.
Paper wasps make random nests with hexagonal cells from chewing wood pulp mixed with wasp spit. A typical nest at season's end might hold 20-30 adults, but big ones can produce a couple hundred wasps.
Paper wasps do OK nesting in trees or shrubs or other natural features, but they often prefer spots in sheltered places within man's structures.
Yellowjackets are smaller wasps, up to about ¾ inch, that build bigger nests and more often will establish these in the ground, often in an abandoned animal den. Other nests are found in rubble and wood piles, as well as in structures like paper wasps do.
Sensitive to vibration and aggressive defenders, yellowjackets may wear us out when we clod along next to a den hole or drive a lawnmower over the same. Yellowjacket stings are among the most painful, and the little twits are rather unforgiving. Fleeing a wasp nest is one thing, but yellowjackets defenders are more vindictive. The yellow stingers may pursue offenders considerable distances, stinging them after they stop or slow down.
Yellowjackets make it worse by being super social. Their nests can be huge, and the number of adult yellowjacket in a big nest can rise into the hundreds or even thousands.
Bald-face hornets are the other common social wasp that warrants caution hereabouts. These are slightly fatter paper wasps with alternating markings of black and cream.
Hornet nests are most often built in a rather inverted pear shape, usually attached to a tree limb and the entrance hole located near the pointy bottom. The nests are valued as collector and natural décor pieces, but don't collect one before freezing weather has done in the occupants.
A mature hornets' nest might hold 200 to 400 adults, so don't invoke their defensive countenance. Hornets seem placid out on patrol, but they bristle at anything that would endanger their nest. I've not had one, but I'm told their stings aren't comfortable.
All these social wasps will be dead or, as queens, in limbo in a few weeks. Until then, keep a sharp eye and give them a wide berth. You don't want to confirm how anti-social they can be.
Steve Vantreese, a freelance outdoors writer, can be reached email@example.com