RECOGNIZES A HORNET NEST
August 19, 2012
few things in nature are so distinctive that no one is likely to confuse them
with other life forms. I saw three of them last week: a box turtle, big red mushrooms,
and a hornet nest. Fortunately for me, my grandson noticed the hornet nest and
pointed it out before I walked right in to it. The two-foot-long, football-shaped
paper structure looked like a pinata hanging head-high in the woods.
The first step to enjoying a bald-faced hornet nest is to be aware of it before
you bump your head on it. These members of the yellow jacket family will protect
their nest by repeatedly attacking and stinging anything perceived as a threat.
Our German shepherd once ventured too close to a nest and half a dozen winged
black-and-white defenders swarmed out of the nest opening like bullets, all finding
their mark. Last week my grandson and I watched from about 15 feet away as hornets
landed at the entrance and entered the nest while others were coming out. I thought
about pitching a little stick to jiggle the nest and see what would happen, but
I was overcome by a wave of sanity when I realized I wasn't positive I could outrun
Bald-faced hornets are the largest North American yellow jackets. An entomologist
would be quick to tell you that they are not true hornets like the European and
Asian species, but let's call them hornets anyway. They are certainly large enough,
being almost an inch long, but they do not sport the characteristic black-and-yellow
banding of the smaller varieties. In flight they look mostly black with light
markings. Head-on the face looks like a fierce mask of ebony and ivory. And they
don't just look ferocious. Bald-faced hornets feed not only on nectar, pollen,
and tree sap but also on insects, including large ones such as cicadas and praying
mantises. The most ambitious predatory takedown for one of these hornets, documented
in British Columbia, was a rufous hummingbird! The geographic range of the species
includes all of the contiguous United States and southern Canada.
The life cycle of this fascinating animal is complex in some ways but relatively
straightforward in others. In early spring, when sustained warm weather appears
certain, female bald-faced hornets emerge from winter dormancy and each selects
a nest site. Some are low to the ground like the one we found recently; others
may be more than 50 feet high in a tree. The female builds a small wasplike nest
and lays an egg in each cell. The hatching hornets are all infertile females that
immediately begin expanding the nest by chewing wood and mixing it with their
saliva, which acts like starch on a cotton shirt. Using their legs, they begin
shaping what will become the hive.
The queen meanwhile lays more eggs, producing a larger workforce. The process
continues until the nest is finished; it will serve as home for the colony of
around 400. As autumn approaches, the queen alters the egg-laying process to produce
fertile offspring-males, called drones, and females that will be the future queens.
Mating occurs before cold weather sets in, producing new queens that seek hiding
places beneath ground and in rotten logs and tree cavities. At year's end the
queens are the only survivors; the workers and drones have died.
nest is an amazing piece of natural architecture that can be collected and preserved
without harming nature. By the first frosts, all the workers have perished, the
queens have departed, and the unattended nests will soon be damaged by winter
winds and rains. So once the nest has been abandoned, it is quite acceptable to
remove it from its environment. Be sure to pick a cold day, because any remaining
female workers will defend the nest till the very end. Drones are not a problem;
they have no stingers. Come cold weather, the hornet nest we found is going to
make a great show-and-tell at my grandson's school.
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