A few things in nature are so distinctive that no one is likely to confuse them with other life forms. I saw three of them last week: a box turtle, big red mushrooms and a hornet nest. Fortunately for me, my grandson noticed the hornet nest and pointed it out before I walked right in to it. The 2-foot-long, football-shaped paper structure looked like a pinata hanging head-high in the woods.
The first step to enjoying a bald-faced hornet nest is to be aware of it before you bump your head on it. These members of the yellow jacket family will protect their nest by repeatedly attacking and stinging anything perceived as a threat. Our German shepherd once ventured too close to a nest and half a dozen winged black-and-white defenders swarmed out of the nest opening like bullets, all finding their mark. Last week my grandson and I watched from about 15 feet away as hornets landed at the entrance and entered the nest while others were coming out. I thought about pitching a little stick to jiggle the nest and see what would happen, but I was overcome by a wave of sanity when I realized I wasn’t positive I could outrun my grandson.
Bald-faced hornets are the largest North American yellow jackets. An entomologist would be quick to tell you that they are not true hornets like the European and Asian species, but let’s call them hornets anyway. They are certainly large enough, being almost an inch long, but they do not sport the characteristic black-and-yellow banding of the smaller varieties. In flight they look mostly black with light markings. Head-on the face looks like a fierce mask of ebony and ivory. And they don’t just look ferocious. 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 most ambitious predatory takedown for one of these hornets, documented in British Columbia, was a rufous hummingbird! The geographic range of the species includes all of the contiguous United States and southern Canada.
The life cycle of this fascinating animal is complex in some ways but relatively straightforward in others. In early spring, when sustained warm weather appears certain, female bald-faced hornets emerge from winter dormancy, and each selects a nest site. Some are low to the ground like the one we found recently; others may be more than 50 feet high in a tree. The female builds a small, wasplike nest and lays an egg in each cell. The hatching hornets are all infertile females that immediately begin expanding the nest by chewing wood and mixing it with their saliva, which acts like starch on a cotton shirt. Using their legs, they begin shaping what will become the hive.
The queen meanwhile lays more eggs, producing a larger workforce. The process continues until the nest is finished; it will serve as home for the colony of around 400. As autumn approaches, the queen alters the egg-laying process to produce fertile offspring-males, called drones, and females that will be the future queens. Mating occurs before cold weather sets in, producing new queens that seek hiding places beneath ground and in rotten logs and tree cavities. At year’s end the queens are the only survivors; the workers and drones have died.
A hornet nest is an amazing piece of natural architecture that can be collected and preserved without harming nature. By the first frosts, all of the workers have perished, the queens have departed and the unattended nests will soon be damaged by winter winds and rains. So once the nest has been abandoned, it is quite acceptable to remove it from its environment. Be sure to pick a cold day because any remaining female workers will defend the nest until the very end. Drones are not a problem; they have no stingers. Come cold weather, the hornet nest we found is going to make a great show-and-tell at my grandson’s school.
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Whit Gibbons is an ecologist and environmental educator with the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.
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