Bald-faced Hornet nest, photo by Jim McCormac
The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday, January 17, 2010
Winter is a good time to see interesting things that were concealed by summer’s dense cloak of leaves. One of the more conspicuous sights is large papery piñata-like nests that hang from branches.
Many people comment on them, believing they are looking at “honey bee” nests. Not even close. The architects that crafted the football-shaped orbs are related to bees, but otherwise the similarities are few. These engineering marvels are the handiwork of bald-faced hornets, Dolichovespula maculata. Comparing one of these to a honey bee is akin to contrasting Clint Eastwood and Richard Simmons.
You are no doubt familiar with those nasty ill-tempered yellow jackets that swarm your pop can and wreak havoc at picnics. As anyone who has been on the receiving end of their sting knows, the black and yellow beasts pack a punch. They’re intimidating enough to send grown men running, arms flailing and screaming like pansies.
Bald-faced hornets bushwhack, kill, and eat yellow jackets. Now that’s one tough insect; terminators of the wasp world. If the adult hornet doesn’t make its own meal of the yellow jacket, it chews it into pulp and feeds it to young hornet larvae back in the nest.
Perhaps you’re thinking it’s time to eradicate all bald-faced hornets before next summer rolls around. No worries. Fortunately for us, these insects are quite mild-mannered, insofar as people go. Leave them alone and they’ll not mess with you, either. Most of their nests tend to be placed well out of reach, too.
This isn’t to say they won’t protect their nests if under siege. More than one person has discovered that dozens of angry bald-faced hornets are quite effective at protecting their property. Because their nests do resemble piñatas, more than one kid has been tempted to bust one open with a stick. These budding Einsteins quickly discover aversion therapy through the use of pain, and certainly will think twice before launching another hornet attack.
The nests are empty of wasps now; the cold of winter kills all but queens that were fertilized last fall. These survivors overwinter in ground burrows or tree cavities, and each will start a new nest in spring. Their first batch of larvae will become workers, whose main task is expanding the nest. Through successive generations, all working hard, the structure can grow to three feet in length.
Each nest is essentially a tiny paper mill. Like winged lumberjacks, the workers harvest wood, which they chew into pulp mixed with their starchy saliva. They smooth this mixture into ornate overlapping papery shrouds which serve to shelter the larval honeycombs.
If you encounter a bald-faced hornet nest next summer, have no fear. Leave them be; they’ll reciprocate. And think about all of those pesky yellow jackets they’re taking out!
Bald-faced Hornet, photo by John Pogacnik