Among Bees and Wasps: Close and Careful

I spend many hours from July into September walking among the wildflowers and among the insects in Eliza Howell Park. My interest in observing insects leads me to try to get very close to them, including to wasps and bees.

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When I show these kinds of pictures (taken with a phone camera), I often get asked about being so close, about the risk of getting stung. The risk is real, of course, and the questions have led me to reflect upon the fact that I have not (yet!) been stung during any of my many Eliza Howell nature walks.

I have given considerable thought on how to behave among stinging insects. The starting point is the understanding or belief that bees, wasps, hornets do not (normally) resort to stinging unless they are disturbed or threatened or perceive that their nests are threatened. Some threats are accidental, such as stepping on a bee, but our behaviors can greatly reduce the extent to which we are perceived as a threat.

Trying carefully to be non-threatening has led to many opportunities to place the camera within inches of a stinging insect.

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In trying to practice “non-threatening” behavior, I try to implement two practices: 1) approach insects slowly and deliberately, with no quick movements; 2) when insects focus their attention on me or when they are/appear to be disturbed, stay perfectly (non-threateningly) still.

The first is easier to implement than the second. A slow approach has resulted in dozens of close-up views, especially when the insect is fully engaged in foraging for nectar.

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The second practical principle (stay perfectly still when insects sense you are or might be a threat) is harder to implement. It requires resisting a tendency to run or swat.

Recently I was walking slowly in the flowers when I saw a large bumblebee flying toward me. It came right up to me, buzzing around as it checked me out, landing and crawling briefly on my binoculars and on my arm. I just stood there until it realized that this big old animal was no threat. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waved my arms.

My biggest scare came last year when I was trying to get close-up pictures of a bald-faced hornet nest that was very low on a tree.

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I did what I had not wanted to do. I disturbed the nest by accidentally hitting the branch that held the nest. A swarm of about 10 nest protectors came storming out. My practice of not moving to show that I am not a threat seemed to work. I just stood there while they flew around me for a while. Then they went back to the nest and I breathed a sigh of relief – and attempted no more pictures of the nest that day.

This posting is in the “since you asked” category. My approach seems to have worked so far, but I know that I might get stung tomorrow by some bee or wasp that just wants me to back off. I respect that.

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September 7 Nature Walk

The second of the annual Detroit Audubon field trips to Eliza Howell Park takes place on Saturday, September 7, 2019, starting at 8:00 a.m. The public is invited; there is no cost.

Timed to coincide with the early days of the Fall bird migration, this walk give special attention to birds, especially warblers headed from the North Woods to Central and South America. Depending upon the weather conditions, we are likely to see several warbler species, perhaps including these three. (Thank you to Margaret Weber for these three photos.)

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Black and White Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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American Redstart

The fall warbler migration begins at the end of August and continues into October, with individuals of some 20 different species making short stops at Eliza Howell. The find from one day to the next is almost always different.

If September 7 is a good day, the birds will keep us quite busy, but we will also stop for non-bird observations. This is about the best time of the year to note the variety and nature of spider webs among the wildflowers and the shrubs. They vary in sizes and shape; this is a small one on a thistle.

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September is also the month when I most frequently see a Praying Mantis (or 2 or 3). They have reached maturity and may be seeking mates and/or laying eggs. (I wrote about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” on September 13, 2018.)

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Butterflies continue to be present. One of my favorite late-season butterflies is the Common Buckeye, which makes it appearance in Eliza Howell after the July butterfly peak.

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I usually find several Bald-faced Hornet nests in the park each year, beginning about this time. We may want to stop for a look (through lenses) to watch the hornets enter and exit the hole near the bottom of these amazing constructions. (For more, see “Bald-faced Hornet Nests,” December 12, 2017.)

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Blue Jays migrate in September and many spend days at Eliza Howell harvesting acorns, from the middle of September into October. (For more information, see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018).

September 7 might be a little early to see them at work, but we will check (this photo also courtesy of Margaret Weber).

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The seasons repeat themselves, so it is possible to predict what might be seen at any given time of the year. But it is also true that every day is different and almost every walk includes an element of the unexpected. Such is the nature of nature walks. September 7 should be fun.

The Amazing Queen Hornet

In the early 1950’s, my siblings and I sometimes listened to the radio crime-fighting drama, The Green Hornet. That was then. Now the hornet I am thinking of is the Queen Hornet.

November is the best month of see Bald-faced Hornet nests in Eliza Howell Park. I walked past some of these nests many times during the last several months, but they were so well hidden in the (often maple) leaves that, despite their larger-than-football size, I found them only after leaves have fallen.

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The number of different hornet nests I see in the park varies from year to year. This year it was only 7 (so far), compared with about twice that many in each of the last two years. The winter of 2017-18 was colder than the previous two years, which is the likely explanation for the decline.

The nests I am now finding are finished; they no longer contain living hornets. Fortunately, I did find an active nest in August, low enough in a tree for me to approach and photograph. I was, of course, conscious of the need to approach carefully; “worker” hornets will sting repeatedly to protect the colonies.

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The white on the face accounts for the “bald-faced” name. They are also sometimes called “White-faced Hornets.”

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As I was taking close-ups, trying to be very quiet and deliberate, all went well until I accidently touched a twig on the tree. The vibration brought out some 10 – 12 defenders that buzzed around looking for the problem. I stood perfectly still and they eventually returned to the nest, apparently not identifying me as a threat. I went my way unstung.

The nests began about 5 months ago, started by a queen. At the end of the season, the inseminated new queens are the only survivors from the colony. A new queen leaves the nest and finds a location (such as under bark or rotting wood) to hibernate. In the spring, if she survives the winter, she will start a new nest all by herself.

Earlier this month, during a Wild Indigo Detroit field trip to Eliza Howell, someone turned over a rotten log to observe the life hidden there. One insect found was a Bald-faced Hornet. The location and time of the year suggested that it was a queen, though she was very sluggish and not very regal appearing.

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In the spring, a surviving queen selects a location, usually in a tree, and starts a new nest, using wood fiber. The nest is small at first but big enough for her to begin laying eggs. The first new hornets of the year are sterile females (the “workers”) who then take over nest building and raising young. The queen has the responsibility of producing more offspring. Typically, a mature colony has over 100 hornets.

Now that the season is over, there is often an opportunity to take a look at the structure of the nest, the home of a whole colony for one brief season.

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Since the nests that we can now find are no longer maintained and birds often open them searching for food, they will soon fall. They remind me of the life they supported in the summer.

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These empty nests also remind me of the amazing queen, hibernating in some hidden and sheltered spot, capable of starting a whole new colony by herself.