Monday, November 11, 2013

Be Curious…Beware

Little did I know, as I labored in my vegetable garden this summer, that I was working under a potential disaster. Not 12 feet over my head hung a huge hornets’ nest. 
Overhead all summer long.
Now that the leaves are falling, hidden treasures are revealing themselves in the trees we have lingered near all season. Walk along a favorite trail and look around. It is a new view. Nests that protected wildlife of all kinds are now becoming visible. Most nests are seasonal only; their creators have long deserted them and will not return the next year. This is only partly true of the makers of these lovely, large paper globe hornet nests.
The White-faced or Bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate) are relatives of Yellow jackets we may be more familiar with. They are protective, aggressive and deliver a painful sting. At the end of the summer season, a hive like this can contain an average of 400-500 individuals. Never mess with a nest! You irritate one, you activate all. As the weather turns chilly the hornets become slower and go dormant, but if you were to find one of these nests on the ground now, and think to bring it indoors for examination, you could be in for a nasty surprise. The warmth may awaken the occupants and you could end up with a house full of angry hornets.
White-faced hornet.
Photo by Patty O'Hearn Kickham from Flickr.
The winter winds will rip and tear it apart, the hornets will die, but each year we have more. It is an interesting cycle. At the end of the summer, each hive can have produced several new queens. They are fertilized by specially raised males. Before the cold sets in, these new queens leave the nest and by this time in November, they can be found under rotting logs in the woods. There they hibernate until spring.
When the weather warms again, the new queens emerge from hibernation and disperse, each finding a new nest site. She begins creating a nest of a few cells and lays the eggs she carried all winter. She tends and feeds the larva until they become ready drones to begin the work of building and tending the nest. Each succeeding generation of workers goes out and chews wood products, bark, twigs, decks and siding as well. When they mix the wood pulp with their saliva, they then spread it out in bands onto the existing hive making it larger and creating more combs within. The combs can be 5-7 deep and up to 10 inches in diameter. A Papier-Mache’ project and a home for hundreds as well! It is truly a work of art, shades of grays and browns overlaid and combined. Amazing. 
Small chamber of the queen's first nest.

More chambers added into the comb.
New eggs are laid within the cells. These hornets do not store food, or make honey in their paper combs. It is strictly for egg and larva development. The adult workers go out and feed on a number of things, including nectar, but also other insects which they bring back to the nest, chew up and deliver to the larvae or queen!
A work of art.
As the season progresses and the hive grows, you can often witness the activity from afar, if you can find the nest. Even birds stay away from an active hive. Some mammals are persistent enough to go after the hive to eat the larva within. But the positioning, way out on a delicate limb, often thwarts even the most determined.

It is the cold season now. The queens have left. Any remaining larvae or adults are dormant or dead. The gray paper nests hang more visibly over trails and at woodland edges. This morning I watched as two Tufted Titmice attacked the one over my garden. They ripped at the outer layers. One went in and out of the entrance hole. They were feasting on those inside that were doomed anyway. And so the cycle continues.  
A project for the birds now.
Written by Beth Sullivan.  Unless otherwise indicated, photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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