downy yellowjacket

(Vespula flavopilosa)

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List

not yet assessed

downy yellowjacket


NNR - Unranked


not listed




April through Autumn




Workers: ½ to

          Photo by Bill Reynolds

This is a medium-sized, ½ to long, predatory, social wasp. It closely resembles eastern yellowjacket. It is thought by some to be a hybrid between eastern yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) and common yellowjacket (V. alascensis). Others suggest that it probably arose as a hybrid but now queens mate with drones of the same species.

There are two large compound eyes, one on each side of the head; and three small simple eyes (ocelli) at the top of the head between the compound eyes. The upper (dorsal) space between the compound eyes is entirely black—there is no yellow “eye loop”. The ridge on the rear of the head (occipital carina) is well developed through its entire length, and continues uninterrupted to the base of the jaw (mandible). The distance between the lateral ocelli and the occipital carina is about the same as the distance between the two lateral oceili. The yellow band on the area below the compound eye (gena) is continuous, not interrupted with black. The space between the bottom of the compound eye and the top of the mandible is narrow. The eyes touch, or almost touch, the mandibles.

The antennae are long and black. Males have 12 antennal segments, females have 13. The hardened plate at the base of each antenna is yellow, the rest is black. The under (ventral) side of the first antenna segment (pedicel) is black, not yellow.

The stout body is slightly wider than the head. The thorax is densely covered with long yellow hairs. A yellow band at the leading edge of the first section (pronotum) is interrupted nearest to the head (at the apex). The dorsal surface of the largest section (scutum) is black, and usually has no stripes down the middle.

The abdomen of the female has six segments, while that of the male has seven segments. The upper plate (tergum) of each abdominal segment is yellow with black markings. The first tergum has a diamond-shaped basal mark that varies in width but is usually V-shaped, without a narrow “neck” at the base. The second tergum usually does not have black spots surrounded by yellow (free).

The coloration of the thorax and abdomen is variable, some with more yellow (xanthic), others with more black (melanic). Xanthic individuals may have short yellow stripes on the scutum and small free black spots on the second abdominal tergum.

The legs are yellow.

The wings are clear.



Larval Food

Pre-chewed fragments of caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects, and probably nectar and honeydew.

Adult Food

Live arthropods; carrion; fruit; honeydew of aphids, caterpillars, and some scale insects; human processed food and garbage; and other sources of protein and sugar. Queens feed on flower nectar in the spring.

Life Cycle

The overwintering queen emerges from hibernation in April or May. In early summer she builds an embryonic nest. The nest begins as just three hexagonal cells. Into each cell she deposits a single egg then covers the cell with fragile paper. She continues building 20 to 45 cells while caring for the grubs as they hatch. In about 30 days the workers emerge and take over nest building duties.

The nest is constructed underground from fecal matter and chewed wood fibers (carton) cemented with saliva. The carton is tan and fragile, but noticeably sturdier than that of eastern and common yellowjackets.

Through spring and summer the queen produces a large number of worker wasps. In mid-summer, the nest grows exponentially, as more and more workers become available, ultimately with 3,500 to 15,000 cells. In late summer the queen begins producing new queens and males. In Minnesota the nests do not survive the winter. Old queens, males, and workers are killed by cold weather in the fall. Only the new queens survive the winter. They mate with up to 7 males in the late summer or fall, then hibernate under loose tree bark, in a decaying stump, or in another sheltered location.



Distribution Distribution Map  

Sources: 24, 27, 29, 30.


What’s in a Name?
One of the common names for this newly identified (1978) species is hybrid yellowjacket. This refers to the possibility that it may be a hybrid between eastern and German yellowjackets.

In eastern North America, four yellowjacket species, common yellowjacket (Vespula alascensis), downy yellowjacket (V. flavopilosa), eastern yellowjacket (V. maculifrons), and German yellowjacket (V. germanica), closely resemble each other, making yellowjacket identification in this region difficult.



Hymenoptera (ants, bees, wasps, and sawflies)



Apocrita (wasps, ants and bees)


No Rank:




Vespoidea (vespoid wasps)



Vespidae (wasps)



Vespinae (hornets and yellowjackets)




downy yellowjacket

hybrid yellowjacket

transition yellowjacket

yellow-haired yellowjacket










An elevated ridge of a body wall of an insect, as in the pronotal carina of many grasshoppers.



The back of the head. In Odonata, the upper part of the head behind the eyes.



Simple eye; an eye with a single lens. Plural: ocelli.



The saddle-shaped, exoskeletal plate on the upper side of the first segment of the thorax of an insect.



The exoskeletal plate covering the forward (anterior) part of the middle segment of the thorax in some insects.


Tergum; tergite

The upper (dorsal), hardened plate on a segment of the thorax or abdomen of an arthropod. Plural: terga.






Visitor Photos
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Bill Reynolds

Pretty dry up here and the wasps are out in great numbers. So far, they aren't bothering the honey bees.

  downy yellowjacket   downy yellowjacket Photos






Visitor Videos
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Other Videos
  Downy Yellow Jacket Nest (Vespidae: Vespula flavopilosa) in Rodent Burrow
Carl Barrentine

Published on Aug 12, 2010

Photographed at the Turtle River State Park, North Dakota (11 August 2010). If I counted correctly, I think that 13 individuals entered this burrow and 14 exited during this 70 second clip. Thank you to 'Vespula.vulgaris' ( for identifying a specimen from this colony! Go here to learn more about this species:

  Vespula flavopilosa Nest # 1 - 2015
Casey Borowski Jr

Published on Sep 10, 2015

This video shows the worker activity of a nest of the Downy Yellowjacket, Vespula flavopilosa. Oregon Ridge Park, Cockeysville, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA. Filmed on August 16, 2015.

  Vespula flavopilosa abdominal signal

Published on Jul 28, 2009

Look very closely at the workers. Some of them were vibrating their abdomen so rapidly that I could actually hear the sound created (although you can't here it in the video)

I wonder what the use of this signal is for. Not all of the workers were doing it

  Her dying days

Published on Oct 9, 2012

This is a rare glimpse of an old foundress, Vespula flavopilosa, in her dying days. She was extracted from her mature nest on October 8th




Visitor Sightings
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Bill Reynolds

Location: Pennington Co. MN

Pretty dry up here and the wasps are out in great numbers. So far, they aren't bothering the honey bees.

downy yellowjacket






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