WINTER BRINGS QUESTIONS ABOUT HORNET NESTS

by Whit Gibbons

December 10, 2017

The ecology of temperate zone animals changes with the seasons. The following explains how one species copes with winter.

Q: Once the leaves disappeared from the woods near our home, I found a huge oval-shaped hornet’s nest with no hornets. Where do they go in winter? What happens to the nest? Can I take it?

A: You have discovered a bald-faced hornet nest, and you have found it at the right time of year – after the first frost. Like honeybees, hornets have a queen and a colony of several hundred workers – all females – that protect and maintain the nest from spring till autumn. Unlike honeybees that use the same hive the following year, old queens and all workers die when cold weather arrives. Recently hatched new queens are the only survivors. The nest, despite the effort that went in to building such fine accommodations, is permanently abandoned. Fertilized queens overwinter in stumps or rotten logs, protected from the cold. Each will begin a new nest and colony the following spring. A queen’s first job is to create a few brood chambers and lay eggs to produce the first workers to finish the home-building process.

The bald-faced hornet is a close relative of yellow jackets but is black and white instead of yellow. Its face resembles a fierce-looking mask of ebony and ivory. Bald-faced hornets are the largest individuals of the wasp family in North America, approaching an inch in length. Like other wasps and bees, the workers sting and will unhesitatingly defend their nest.

The life cycle of bald-faced hornets involves a mixture of art and biology. Hornets create a paper-covered nest by chewing up pieces of wood, mixing it with their saliva and turning it into a papier-mâché structure that looks like a party piñata attached to a limb. But when the nest is occupied, whacking it with a pole would be a really bad idea. When their nest is threatened, hornets bolt out the bottom opening like rapid machine-gun fire headed toward what they consider to be the source of the problem. Unlike honeybees, which leave their stinger in a victim and then die, an angry hornet can sting more than once. Successfully outrunning a phalanx of defending hornets is unlikely, but getting as far away from the nest as possible will diminish the pursuit of those that have not already stung you.

Once completed, the nest on the inside consists of combs made of brood cells comparable to typical wasp nests seen under the eaves of buildings. The queen hornet is larger than the workers and busies herself all spring and summer laying eggs that hatch into workers. Her last efforts at the end of the growing season are to lay eggs that develop into new queens and drones, the males that do not defend the colony but leave to mate with new females from other colonies. In early spring, when sustained warm weather appears certain, female bald-faced hornets emerge from winter dormancy and select new nest sites.

A hornet nest can be anywhere in a forest. Some are only a few feet off the ground, ideally located for collecting in the winter for a show-and-tell or for accidentally bumping into. We found one last year that was chest-high in a bush and another more than 60 feet high in a tree. 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 documented record for the most ambitious capture by one of these flying predators is a rufous hummingbird. The geographic range of the bald-faced hornet includes most of the United States and southern Canada.

After 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. If you’re certain the nest is empty, by all means take it.

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