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Bald-faced Hornet

The Architecture of a Bald-faced Hornet Nest

11-29-17 hornet nest 049A8063The exterior of a Bald-faced Hornet nest consists of an outer envelope of paper that is made up of a myriad of horizonal stripes of chewed up wood fibers that have been mixed with hornet saliva. Each stripe represents a single hornet’s contribution. The different colors represent different sources of wood. This outer envelope is only one of several (up to 12 or more) that serve to insulate the innermost, active part of the nest.

Inside these outer sheets are three or four horizontal tiers of hexagonal cells in which eggs are laid and brood are raised. Access from one level to another is at the periphery of the tiers, just inside the shell. The queen begins the nest, building a few cells and raising female workers that then take over the cell-building while the queen continues to lay eggs. As the number of hornets increases, so does the number of cells they build, and as a result the tiers become wider and wider. When space runs out, the hornets remove one or more of the innermost layers of insulating paper that form the envelope, while constructing new sheets on the outside. The nest continues to grow in this fashion until the queen’s egg-laying slows down at the end of the season.

The construction of these tiers of cells takes place upside down in total darkness, which is, in itself, quite a feat. When they are constructing a cell, the hornets keep one antenna inside the cell and the other on the outside. By monitoring the distance between the two antennae tips they can judge thickness of the wall. They do a similar thing with their mandibles, with one on each side of the wall, in order to straighten the cell walls and squeeze the pulp flat to remove water.

If the cells were built sideways or upwards they would require constant attention from the hornets until they dried in order to prevent them from sagging. Given that the cells are downward-facing, one might wonder why the hornet larvae don’t fall out. Water has a great affinity for uncoated paper (think of paper towels sucking up water against the pull of gravity). Because the larvae are damp, they actually stick to the paper cell walls. When they are ready to pupate, they must separate from the walls. They do this by attaching themselves to the cell with silk and then spin a silk cocoon.

In order to fully appreciate the intricate architecture of a Bald-faced Hornet nest, you must dissect one (they are only used for one season). Just be sure to wait until there have been a number of hard frosts, in order to assure that there are no residents. (Photo: Bald-faced Hornet nest – (left) envelope consisting of 12 layers & (right) cluster of cells it surrounded; inset:  dissected inner section showing four tiers of cells)


Black Bears Raiding Brood

11-1-17 bear binging 049A7147Previously this fall I posted about Black Bears foraging ferociously in the fall in order to store fat (sometimes doubling their weight) before hibernating. That post showed an ant-infested tree that had been ripped apart. As winter approaches, signs of bears’ frenetic gorging (hyperphagia) increase dramatically. Protein-rich sources such as Bald-faced Hornet nests (suspended from branches) and Yellow Jacket nests (in cavities in the ground) are highly sought after.

If you look closely, you’ll see that the claws of the bear that attempted to raid the hornet nest (suspended ten feet above the ground) were able to reach just the bottom portion of the nest, tearing the outer multi-layered, paper envelope but not reaching the brood-containing cells within. The Yellow Jacket cells containing brood (eggs, larvae and pupae), on the other hand, were all removed from the ground nest and consumed. All that remains is a portion of the outer envelope and a few adults.

 


Yellow Jackets On A Bender

10-27-17 yellow jackets 049A6627

At this time of year, yellow jackets, hornets and wasps take advantage of the plethora of fermented fruit that lies underneath fruit trees. Because the queen slows down the production of eggs in the fall, workers have time on their hands, as they have fewer larvae to collect food (chewed-up insects) for. Their life (but not the queen’s) is about to come to an end, and they go out in style. If you have observed these members of the Vespidae family acting more erratic, it may well be because they are drunk on hard cider. (Photo:  yellow jackets binging)


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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