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Bald-faced Hornet

Red-eyed Vireo Nests

1-28-16 red-eyed vireo nest IMG_6315

The Red-eyed Vireo’s nest is indisputably a work of art. Unlike most songbird nests, it is suspended below the branch to which it is attached. Perhaps the observant eye of Arthur C. Bent, a compiler of firsthand bird observations in the early to mid-1900’s, describes it best.

The red-eyed vireo builds a dainty little pensile nest suspended usually from a forking, horizontal branch of a tree, rather below the level of our eyes as we walk through second-growth. The nest is a beautifully finished piece of workmanship, constructed of fine grasses and rootlets, bits of birch bark, and paper from wasps’ nests, bound together and to the supporting branches with spider’s or caterpillar’s webbing, and , perhaps the most constant material, long, narrow, flexible strands of grapevine bark, which help to hold up the cup of the nest.

As mentioned, pieces of Bald-faced Hornet nests are frequently incorporated into the outside of a Red-eyed Vireo’s nest. These papery bits of hornet nest are purely decorative, and serve no structural purpose. Hornets are aggressive and defend their nests vigorously, so much so that it is unusual to find birds nesting in close proximity to a hornet nest. A vireo nest covered with papery bits of a hornet’s nest looks very much like a young hornet nest. It is conceivable that the use of this decorative material is a strategy employed by vireos to ward off potential nest predators.

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Bald-faced Hornet Nests No Longer Inhabited (if you live where there has been a hard frost)

Mary Holland holding very large wasp nest, which was built above her houseIf you research bald-faced hornet nests you will find that their average size is often compared to that of a football or basketball. The maximum size is said to be between 14 and 18 inches in diameter, and up to 23 or 24 inches in length. The pictured nest (which hung 20 feet above the roof of my house) measures 14 inches wide and 29 inches long – far larger than the average hornet nest!

This entire nest was built in roughly four months. It was started by a queen bald-faced hornet that, after emerging from hibernation this past spring, chewed some wood fiber, mixed it with her saliva and created a few brood cells surrounded by one or more paper “envelopes.” She laid an egg in each cell, and fed the hornet larvae insects which she first masticated into tiny bits. When the larvae pupated and emerged as adult workers, they assumed the duties of nest building, food collection, feeding the larvae and protecting the nest, while the queen continued laying eggs in horizontal tiers of cells. This ongoing activity produced a colony of anywhere from 100 to 400 workers by the end of the summer. Shortly before the first hard frost this fall, the queen left the colony and found a protected spot in which to spend the winter. When freezing temperatures arrived, the workers all died, leaving a nest that will never again be inhabited by bald-faced hornets. (Thanks to Nick Burnham, who ingeniously managed to collect the nest for me, and Gary Trachier for the photo.)

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Black Bears Seeking Protein

9-2 hornet nest torn by bear 083Although insects and animal matter make up less than 10% of the annual black bear diet, they are a crucial part of it. Black bears get most of their animal protein from ant brood, hornet larvae, tent caterpillars, march fly larvae, grubs (especially June beetle grubs), and snow fleas. Among the most preferred sources are bee and hornet larvae. Berries and other fruit don’t have a great amount of protein, but they do have some (blackberries = 2 grams of protein per cup). If the summer berry crops fail, insect brood is especially important, especially at this time of year, when bears are seeking protein, fats and carbohydrates, putting on as much as 30 pounds per week to sustain themselves through the coming months of hibernation.

When tearing apart a beehive, yellow jacket nest or bald-faced hornet nest (see photo), bears do get stung, particularly on their ears and faces (their fur is fairly impenetrable). Apparently the reward is worth the aggravation. After filling themselves with brood (and in some cases, honey) black bears shake vigorously in order to rid themselves of any insects that are caught in their fur.(Thanks to Alfred Balch for photo op.)

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Hover Fly Mimics Bald-faced Hornet

8-5-15 bald-faced hornet and hover flyAdult hover flies, often referred to as syrphid (family Syrphidae) or flower flies, feed on pollen and nectar, and are often seen hovering at or crawling on flowers. Many have black and yellow bands on their abdomen, and are frequently mistaken for bees. There are certain species of hover flies that mimic stinging wasps, including yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets (see photo). Predators such as birds, ambush bugs, and spiders might think twice about eating an insect that can sting, and hover flies take advantage of this. The process through which this occurs is called Batesian mimicry, and refers to when a harmless species evolves to imitate a harmful species that has the some of the same predators.

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