From an early age I have been fascinated with wasps. In fact one of my early memories is of reaching out to grab a paper wasp nest. They did not appreciate the gesture.
The stings did not make me stay away from them. A few years later, we had a wasp nest on our porch and I would climb up with a wide mouthed jar and quickly put it over the nest so I could get close and look at the nest and all the wasps. Naturally, all of the wasps were not on the nest at the time and when one that was out flying around came back, I would be stung again. Usually more than once. For when the returning wasp stung me, I would drop the jar and before I could get down, the other wasps that were on the nest, under the jar, would also take their shots at me. They were a little excited from the jar over the nest and my face a few inches away. When they suddenly could get to me, they stung me, too, sometimes repeatedly. Imagine that.
They have always been interesting to me and I have messed with them and their nests time and again. I used to have a collection of nests and dead wasps pinned to them so they looked like they were still alive working the nest.
Actually paper wasps, Polistes sp., are really not all that aggressive. You can get within a few inches of their nests without generating a response, but if you get to close or touch the nest, they will attack.
Only the females sting. That is because males do not have a stinger which are a modification of the ovopositor, the egg laying tube. Want to determine is the paper wasp you are watching is a male? Just reach out and try to touch it. Wait. Wait. That really isn't a good idea. You don't really need to know if it is a male or female - only the wasps should care about that.
The nest is founded in early Spring after a mated female emerges from a crack or crevice where she spent the winter. She will create the nest from chewed wood and plant fibers. The nest is much like an upside down umbrella with vertical cylindrical tubes. She lays a egg in each chamber. They hatch into legless larva which go through several stages before they pupate. At that time, the queen seals the top of the tube with more of the chewed wood paste. The fully developed wasps eventually chew their way out of the tube and take up their roles in the colony.
Paper wasp have a social structure much like other members of the Insect Order Hymenoptera which includes wasps, bees, ants, hornets and similiar insects. The society is made up of a queen, females and male workers. In the late summer, the males mate with the females. The mated females find places in crevices or cracks to over winter. The rest of the nest/colony do not survive. In the Spring the queens emerge and the cycle begins again.
In appearance paper wasps are somewhat similar to yellow jackets. They are nothing alike in temperament. You can get close to a paper wasps nest without much risk. The same is not true of yellow jackets. If you make the mistake of getting close to their nest, you will likely be stung.
If you have paper wasps nest and wish to get rid of them, don't buy the chemical wasps sprays. There is no need to waste your money. Get an 8 ounce water glass, put about 2 or 3 tablespoons of Dawn dish soap in the bottom and fill it with water. Approach the nest slowly and quickly throw the soap mixture so it hits the entire nest. The wasps will be coated with the soap mixture which is heavy enough that they cannot fly. They go straight down. For a minute or two they may crawl around on the ground, but then they die. Wasps breathe through small opening in their exoskeleton called spiracles. The soap mixture covers these openings and they suffocate.
You will not believe how well this works. Try it, but only on nests that you need to be removed. If they are in a place where they do not offer a risk of being a nuisance - by stinging, you should leave them alone. They actually do a lot of good with their control of insects which they feed upon.
I still think they are fascinating, but I don't put jars over their nests any longer. Lesson learned.