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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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Bumblebees Foraging Fall Flowers

10-5-15 tri-colored bumblebee IMG_1479With frost just a whisper away, and in some areas not even that, there are still hardy plants, many in the Composite family (goldenrods, asters, thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow), which defy the odds and optimistically send forth blossoms on the off chance that there are still pollinators on the wing. Fortunately for them, bumblebees can and do fly at much cooler temperatures than honeybees and other pollinators. When food is plentiful and outside temperatures fall below 50°F., bumblebees generally stay inside their nest and live off their stores. At times when food is scarce or stores are low, they will forage when the outside temperature is as low as 43°F. (In severe conditions they have even been known to vary their flying height to and from the nest to take advantage of any temperature differences.) Locally, Tri-colored Bumblebees (Bombus ternarius) have a near monopoly on the last vestiges of nectar and pollen (see photo).

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Yellow Jackets Rebuilding Nest

yellow jacket nest2From the size of the chunks of sod that were ripped out of the ground in order to access this subterranean yellow jacket (Vespula sp.) nest, one can deduce that a black bear, not a striped skunk or raccoon, was the nocturnal visitor. Usually there is little intact nest left after a bear tears it apart in an effort to find yellow jacket larvae, but in this case, a portion of the paper nest remained. Apparently undaunted, even with frost in the air (signaling the demise of all the yellow jackets except young, fertilized overwintering queens), the workers lost no time in rebuilding their nest. Twenty-four hours after their nest was torn apart, the colony of yellow jackets had diligently chewed enough wood fiber to have replaced much of it.

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Bumblebees Raising Queens & Males

9-11-15  bumblebee emerging IMG_5476Unlike a hive of honeybees, where the queen and workers overwinter, the only bees in a bumblebee colony that live through the winter are young, fertilized queens. In early fall, bumblebees begin producing new queens as well as males in order to allow the colony to reproduce. Once the adult virgin queens and males have emerged from the silk cocoons within their pupal cells, they leave the hive. The male bees spend their time feeding on nectar and trying to mate with the new queens and the young queens mate with several males. Once fertilized, the queens continue to feed, building up fat bodies for the approaching winter. Once enough fat bodies are stored, queens begin searching for suitable overwintering locations. Overwintering sites are often in an abandoned chipmunk or mouse burrow, or in soft soil or compost, where they can survive temperatures down to – 5° F. due to a kind of “antifreeze” they produce. The rest of the hive (old queen, workers and any remaining males) dies once cold weather arrives. In the spring the queens emerge and start new colonies. (Thanks to Natalie Kerr & Sadie Brown for making this post possible and accurate.)

Photo by Sadie Brown: A recently-excavated underground colony of bumblebees (by a chemical-free “pest” controller) contained several wax pupal cells, as well as wet, silver-haired bumblebees (their color appears as they age) emerging from some of the cells. At this time of year, they are most likely to be queens or drones.

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Goldenrod Crucial To Honeybee Survival

8-13  honeybee and goldenrod 028Goldenrod is one of the most important flowering plants for honeybees because it is a prolific producer of nectar and pollen late in the year. Blooming in the late summer and fall, this bright yellow-flowered composite provides nectar for the bees to build up stores of honey for winter. (Goldenrod honey is dark amber and strong tasting.) Goldenrod also provides pollen to help stimulate the colony to produce brood late into the fall. The pollen adds considerable amounts of protein, fats, and minerals to the diet of the late-season bees, helping ensure that they will have food throughout the winter.

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Black and Yellow Mud Daubers Collecting Mud & Building Cells

7-20-15 mud dauber 140There are many species of mud daubers — wasps that build mud cells in which they lay eggs and in which their larvae develop. The female Black and Yellow Mud Dauber gathers mud at the edge of a pond or puddle, rolls it into a ball, grasps it in her mandibles and flies it back to her nest site, a spot protected from rain, often on a man-made building. Here she constructs several mud cylindrical cells.

Like most wasps, mud daubers are predators, and they provision their mud cells with select spiders (including jumping spiders, crab spiders and orb weavers) which they locate, sting and paralyze before stuffing them into a cell. The female lays an egg amongst the spiders, so that when the egg hatches the emerging larva will have a supply of spiders (that haven’t decomposed, because they’re not dead) to eat. She seals the cell with mud, and repeats this process several times after which she covers the small group of cells with more mud. The Black and Yellow Mud Dauber larvae pupate in the fall, overwinter inside the cells and emerge as adult wasps the following spring.

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Sacrificial Honeybee Drones

6-26-15 drone 039A honeybee colony has one (fertile, egg-laying) queen, several hundred male drones and thousands of (sterile) female worker bees. The drone’s one and only function is to mate with and fertilize a queen. (They do no work in the hive, and are fed by workers until fall.) Early in a queen’s life, she makes several mating, or nuptial, flights. On these flights, she mates — in midair about 200-300 feet high — with anywhere from one to more than 40 drones. They are usually not from the queen’s hive, but may be from several other hives. The average number of drones with which a queen mates is 12. The queen stores up to six million sperm from her mating flights, and retains them for the remainder of her life — two to three years, for a long-lived queen. (Recent research shows that the more times a queen mates, the more attractive she is to her worker bees, due to pheromone alterations, and thus, the longer she lives before being replaced.)

While the queen may live several years after mating, the few drones that manage to partner with her do not, for they die after mating. Although brief, honeybee mating is dramatic. The drone inserts his endophallus (internal penis) into the queen’s sting chamber and with great force injects his sperm into her. The force with which this is done is so powerful that it ruptures the endophallus, separating the drone from the queen. The drone dies shortly thereafter. (At this time of year, honeybee hives often swarm due to overcrowding, with the old queen departing with half of the hive; a new, virgin queen then takes her nuptial flights.) Photo: A drone honeybee which lost its life after successfully mating with a queen. Discovered and photographed by Boston Beekeeper Association founder, Sadie Richards Brown.

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