Hornets OK unless you're yellow jacket

NATURE
Hornets OK unless you're yellow jacket
 
Sunday,  January 17, 2010 3:22 AM

One of the more conspicuous sights is large papery pinata-like nests that hang from branches.

Many people comment on them, thinking they are honeybee nests.

The architects that crafted the football-shaped orbs are related to bees, but, otherwise, the similarities are few. These engineering marvels are the handiwork of bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata). Comparing one of these hornets to a honeybee is akin to comparing Clint Eastwood to Richard Simmons.

You're no doubt familiar with the ill-tempered yellow jackets that swarm your pop can and wreak havoc at picnics. As anyone who has been on the receiving end of their sting knows, the black-and-yellow beasts pack a punch.

Bald-faced hornets bushwhack, kill and eat yellow jackets. Now that's one tough insect. They're the terminators of the wasp world. If the adult hornet doesn't make its own meal of the yellow jacket, it chews it into pulp and feeds it to young hornet larvae at the nest.

Perhaps you're thinking it's time to eradicate the nests -- and all bald-faced hornets -- before next summer rolls around. Don't do it. Fortunately for us, the insects are quite mild- mannered toward people. Leave them alone and they'll not mess with you. Most of their nests tend to be placed well out of reach, too.

This isn't to say they won't protect their nests if under siege. More than one person has discovered that dozens of angry bald-faced hornets are quite effective at protecting their property. Because their nests resemble pinatas, more than one kid has been tempted to bust one open with a stick. The budding Einstein quickly discovers aversion therapy through the application of pain, and he will think twice before launching another hornet attack.

The nests are empty of wasps now; the cold of winter kills all but the queens that were fertilized in the fall. Those survivors spend winter in ground burrows or tree cavities, and each will start a new nest in the spring.

Through successive generations, all working hard, the structure can grow to

3 feet long.

Each nest is essentially a tiny paper mill. Like winged lumberjacks, the workers harvest wood, which they chew into pulp mixed with their starchy saliva. They smooth this mixture into ornate overlapping papery shrouds that shelter the larval honeycombs.

If you encounter a bald-faced hornet nest next summer, have no fear. Leave them be; they'll reciprocate. And think about all of those pesky yellow jackets they're taking out!

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

cdecker@dispatch.com

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