Paper wasps (genus Polistes) are the most common wasps of the Sonoran desert. They are about one inch long and often brightly colored (see photo gallery). According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, common paper wasps include the yellow (aka golden) paper wasp, the Navajo paper wasp, which is deep chocolate brown with the end of the abdomen yellowish; and the Arizona paper wasp, which is slightly smaller and more spindle-shaped than the other two and is brownish-red with thin yellow cross bands on the abdomen.
A golden paper wasp (Polistes aurifer) has been inspecting my house recently, but so far, I have not seen any nests. This wasp drinks from my pool. It can land on and walk on the water because it does not break surface tension. These wasps are not usually aggressive except when defending a nest. The nest is built using tree bark and wood fibers mixed with saliva.
ASDM: The paper wasp is a social insect whose life cycle begins as a solitary mated queen. The queen overwinters deep in rock cracks, behind peeling tar paper, or inside enclosures. In spring the queen builds a paper nest suspended from a thin stalk in a protected rock crevice, among thick vegetation such as dead fan palm leaves, or under the overhang of a man-made structure. She constructs a small cluster of paper hexagonal cells and lays an egg in each. The queen then feeds the larvae that hatch from these eggs a diet of caterpillar ‘meat balls.’ When the first young worker wasps emerge from their pupal cells, they assume the tasks of hunting caterpillars, collecting material for making papier-mâché for nest expansion, and collecting water for cooling. The queen then ceases all work except egg laying. By late spring, the colonies have grown to contain 20 to 50 wasps; by late summer as many as 200 wasps may be present. At this time new queens and males are reared. After mating, the new queens imbibe nectar to fatten for the winter. By late fall, the queen mother and workers die, the nest is abandoned, and the next generation of queens goes into hibernation.
Most wasps are specialized hunters that track down their prey using smell and sight combined with knowledge of the habitat, activity periods, and behavior of the prey. A solitary wasp usually subdues its prey with a sting that either kills the prey or paralyzes it briefly or permanently. (Tarantulas stung by tarantula hawks can live completely paralyzed for months.) Social wasps, including paper wasps, never sting their prey. Instead, they use their powerful cutting mandibles to chew the prey into pieces to feed directly to their larvae. The venom of social wasps is used only for defense. (Read more from ASDM)
Most wasps are carnivores that feed on other insects and arthropods. A few species have become herbivores, like bees, and feed on nectar and pollen.
Although wasps are not pleasant to have around, they are beneficial because they are pollinators.
See also: Tarantula Hawks Deliver The Big Sting