Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bald-faced Hornet nest

While cruising the roads at Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area last Thursday, I came across many interesting things, as is nearly always the case at this vast place. The verges of this road were loaded with migrant sparrows, mostly White-crowned and White-throated sparrows. When working such bird-rich sites, I usually have the big lens clipped in place on the camera, so as not to miss a good bird shot if one presents itself.

At one point, I glanced over to see this papery football-sized contraption nearly at eye level. A Bald-faced Hornet nest! Naturally, I was pleased to make this find, as the hornets normally place their nests much higher in trees than this, and thus make good photos harder to obtain. I skidded the car onto the road's edge and hopped out, the Canon already rigged with the Sigma 150-500 lens. Such a telephoto is a good idea when dealing with potentially dangerous animals such as these hornets - the smart person can remain at a safe distance, yet still get decent images.

Here's one of the inhabitants up close: Bald-faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata. I took this shot a few years ago, with a point & shoot. I was able to get in fairly close - but still didn't get a great image - before signs of aggression by the hornet made me back off.

Bald-faced Hornets rank very high on the scale of fierce insects. After all, they hunt, kill, and eat other beasts like Eastern Yellowjackets! From my experience, they aren't overtly aggressive towards people, though - unless you invade their turf. I am about to invade their turf.

Using the big Sigma lens allowed me to remain 30 or more feet away from the nest, and still zoom to frame fill the shot. But, that wasn't good enough. I kept creeping closer, and progressively unzooming the lens until I was shooting at 150 mm and still mostly filling the image with the nest. By now, I was 15 feet or so away, and on high alert.

All of a sudden - WHAM! A bright white electric pain shot through my right hand. One of the hornets had hit me! It was essentially a drive by stinging. The occasional hornet was coming and going from the nest, and I think one just happened to head off in my direction. Confronted with a strange interloper, it whacked me on its way out. Their sting is quite amazing, actually. The animal never even landed on me - it apparently just hit me in a fraction of a second as it whizzed by. The effect is sudden and extraordinary, though. It's as if you've been stuck with a hypodermic needle heated to 1,000 degrees. Every one of your body's senses immediately fixates on the sting, and the synapses instantly fire off brilliantly intense warning messages to the brain. Within a nanosecond every fiber of your being is telling you to FLEE!

Which I did. Knowing that problems could arise, I had the car as close as possible, door open and windows shut. If need be I could dive in there and seal myself off from the hornets.

CAVEAT: I'd never recommend trying for close-ups of a Bald-faced Hornet nest. You're almost certain to get stung, and that can be a real problem for some people. I viewed this opportunity as a calculated risk and felt that a few factors were in my favor. One, I didn't plan on getting TOO close. Two, the situation was thus that I had a hornet shelter - the car - very close at hand. And perhaps most importantly, based on experience, I have no allergy issues to stinging Hymenoptera. Some people react very badly to stings and go into anaphylactic shock. Stings can be life-threatening in such cases and sensitive people would never, ever want to go anywhere near a Bald-faced Hornet nest.

After trotting back to the car, I - kind of, sort of - reveled in the pain of the sting. While the initial blast is jolting in the extreme, its effects wear off rapidly and within five minutes or so it's as if nothing ever happened. Being that this was my first Bald-faced Hornet sting, I was interested in its impact.

Upon review of my images in the camera's viewing screen, I felt I could do better and should make the most of this opportunity. So, on went the 100 mm macro. This lens, unfortunately, would necessitate a closer approach - probably within 12 feet. It turns out that I was able to, quite stealthily and very quietly, creep to about ten feet away. That enabled close shots of the nest's entrance. Note the hornets swarming about, with many more lurking just inside the doorway. They remained seemingly unconcerned by me although I'm sure they were well aware of my presence.

After making a series of images, BAM! Another one got me on the right hand, in nearly the same place as the other. I took the hint and exited stage right with good speed. No sense pushing my luck, and one thing you do not want to do is bring down the wrath of the entire colony and have the whole gang hot on your heels.

In addition to having a nice opportunity to make images of these interesting insects, it was also informative to experience their stings. One often hears inaccurate or much exaggerated claims about animal bites and stings, and probably the only way to know the truth for certain is to experience it. Not that I'd ever recommend that anyone go all Justin Schmidt and try to get stung, but at least now I can speak with firsthand familiarity should the need to describe the sting of a Bald-faced Hornet ever arise.


Mary Ann said...

I don't mean to laugh at your pain, and yet, here I am, laughing at your pain. I'm sorry but this is hilarious! Looks like you got the shots though, so, you know, what's a little horrific torture? :)

Jim McCormac said...

Anything to get the shot!

Unknown said...

Okay, so this proves what we've wondered all along. . . you ARE nuts! Being one of those folks that's allergic, I'm sitting here having hives just thinking about this.... {{shivers}}

Jim McCormac said...

Not nuts, Marianne- dedicated! Someone has to get shots of this stuff!

Dave Chambers said...

Jim - a truly dedicated researcher would have taken the nest home for analysis...

Sharkbytes said...

I keep my distance for sure. But what if you got a couple of them inside the car with you?

Jim McCormac said...

Fortunately I am not a truly dedicated researcher! And a few wasps in the car beats dozens of wasps in the bush!

Unknown said...

Nice blog Jim!
I live up in Delaware County and am also interested in wildlife photography. Took a trip up to Killdeer, but didn't see much. Had a lot more diversity on Hogback Road in Delaware County. If you haven't been there, you should plan a trip next fall when they lower the water level in the reservoir.
I'm shooting with a Sigma 150-500 too and love it. You can see some examples on my new blog at
My next goal is to catch some of the Sandhill Cranes that should be migrating through the area in the next month....
Nice to meet someone else in the area interested in nature photography.

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