A Bald-Faced Hornet Nest
Outside my kitchen window, about 20 yards from the house is a bald-faced hornet’s nest. Suspended by a single thin branch on an old sugar maple tree, it hangs seven feet off the ground and is remarkable for its size and beautiful shape. The nest is 20 inches from top to bottom and, certainly, one of the largest nests I have seen. The upper section measures just more than 10 inches in diameter, and it comes to a point of just two inches at the bottom forming a symmetrical upside-down teardrop shape. At this writing in early December the nest still hangs, but I can see it is slowly deteriorating, its gray paper exterior flaking off in thin strips. Most likely our first significant wet snow will bring it down.
I first noticed the nest this past summer while cutting the grass, and my initial thought was to destroy the nest, which I have done many times over the years to large nests too close to home. I know all too well from experience that bald-faced hornets are extremely aggressive to anyone near their nest and their stings are excruciatingly painful. For those allergic to bee, wasp and hornet bites, they are very dangerous and possibly deadly. There is nothing quite as terrifying as running from a disturbed nest of angry bald-faced hornets.
Due to its grand shape and size, I thought I might leave the hornets alone and let them continue their life cycle for the season. All through late July and August I kept an eye on that nest and its continued expansion. From my kitchen window, I would watch it sway gently in the breeze and imagined the tiny larvae inside rocking to sleep in their individual nursery chambers.
My egalitarian plans were interrupted by news that we were to host a late summer family outdoor gathering of three generations, including a handful of rambunctious toddlers and youngsters. My visions of a child, stick in hand playing “pinata” with the nest was enough to doom the nest and its inhabitants. With a spray can of wasp and hornet insecticide, I coated the nest and entrance/exit hole. In less than a minute the deed was done – yet the nest still hangs from the thin tiny branch, a suspended tomb of hundreds of hornets.
Here is some interesting information I researched on bald-faced hornets. First, I have always referred to them as white-faced hornets, however most resources I discovered refer to them as bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata). Apparently, along with white-faced they are also called white-tailed hornet, bald-faced yellow jacket, black jacket, and bull wasp.
They are stout in body and black with white markings on the front of their heads and tips of their abdomens. They have dark eyes, and their white (also referred to as bald) face is how they get their name. Their front wings fold back and lengthwise when not flying, and they have large antennae. Unlike honeybees, the stinger of the bald-faced hornet is not barbed enabling the hornet to sting multiple times. The honeybee’s barbed stinger sticks in its victim and as the bee flies off the stinger is pulled from of its abdomen, killing the bee.
Bald-faced hornets are in the family of vespid wasps that includes yellowjackets that nest in the ground, and paper wasps. They are found throughout North America and southern Canada. They build their nests in the heat of summer, typically along forest edges and meadows and parks, and can be found attached to buildings and under eaves as well as suspended from tree and shrub branches. They do not reuse their nests and build new ones each year.
The nest is usually high off the ground to prevent attack from predators such as racoons and skunks. The nest is multiple layers of hexagon combs encased in about two inches of paper material made from wood fibers and saliva. Starting as a small structure, the nest continues to grow as the colony increases. All the hornets in the colony are offspring of a single founding queen. The hanging nests are usually in the shape of a football that helps shed water. At the bottom is an entrance and exit hole and upper portions may have air vents for ventilation.
Bald-faced hornets have a varied diet but are primarily carnivorous and prey on other insects, such as deer flies, horse flies and spiders. If they dine on deer and horse flies, then I am happy to have them near our house – preferably away from the spaces we use regularly! Their diet can also include fruits, tree sap and nectar from flowers. Unlike honey and bumble bees, they are not effective pollinators. Bees have hairy bodies that pollen easily attaches to, however, the smooth bodies of hornets have less adhesion for the sticky pollen.
The pregnant queen hornet starts with a small nest with an initial batch of eggs that hatch into infertile worker hornets. Those worker hornets take on the role of tending to the young. The larvae are fed insects until they reach maturity, and the nest continues to grow in this fashion throughout the summer months. The fertile females from the nest will leave to hibernate during winter months while the workers die off leaving the nest abandoned.
“Gone now are all the hundreds of large black and white insects that came and went on summer days. Young queens, bearing within their bodies the future of other colonies, are now hidden away in crannies and beneath trash where, deep in a state of winter dormancy, they will spend the months until spring. All the other members of the once-teeming throng of white-faced wasps have been slain by cold” — From “A Walk Through the Year, December 3,” by Edwin Way Teale
For many years I have aspired to understand and appreciate the role and importance of all the creatures in our shared world. We’re all part of nature’s vast web of life, critical to a healthy ecosystem — even the dreaded bald-faced hornet. While I had hoped to let the nest close to my house, full of swarming hornets, remain through its cycle, my role as protector of my family, especially the children, condemned its survival. I am confident that come spring another fertile queen will emerge to build her nest on our property — hopefully out of the way of wary humans.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Each day of every week, every month and passing year provides yet another reason for all of us to care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Information on bald-faced hornets was gleaned from the “Kaufman Field Guide to Nature in New England,” the “Stokes Guide to Observing Insects,” “A Walk Through the Seasons” by Edwin Way Teale, and other online sources.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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