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