White-faced hornets: Time for a change of image?

A white-faced hornet (Wikimedia Commons, by PiccoloNamek)

A white-faced hornet (Wikimedia Commons, by PiccoloNamek)

By TED WATT Gazette Contributing Writer

Published in print: Saturday, November 23, 2013

Right now we’re safe. Most of them are dead, killed by the heavy frosts of late autumn.

And the queen is dormant in a carefully constructed chamber under a log or rock in the forest. But next April she’ll emerge and begin a new nest. She was fertilized in the fall, so she’ll lay eggs and raise the first workers of her colony, then turn over all the jobs in the colony to them except for egg laying. You’ve probably seen them — white-faced hornets.

You can find their big, round, gray, papery nests anywhere: hanging high in a tree in the forest, attached to a shrub right outside your back door, or even attached under the eaves of your house or garage. Nests start out small, only an inch or two across, but they grow. By late summer an active nest can be over a foot wide and two feet long and support up to 700 adult hornets. They make the nests by scraping off layers of wood with their mandibles from bare porch railings or house sidings. They mix the fibers with their body fluids and regurgitate them to make those distinctive layered brood chambers and protective walls around the nest. If you look at the nest walls you can see different colors of paper depending on where the worker hornet collected the fibers.

All during the summer workers collect other insects to feed their growing larvae. They’ll capture yellow jackets, flies, spiders and others. They chew them up and regurgitate them for their young. They have even been observed eating raw meat. I spent some time watching workers around my hydrangeas this summer. They cruised around fast, hovering over the flowers. But they weren’t nectaring. There were lots of other insects avidly gathering nectar and pollen—yellow jackets, honeybees, other wasps, flies, butterflies …. The white-faced hornets would occasionally — purposely,or so it seemed to me — collide with another insect. I speculated that they were hunting, though I never actually saw one catch another insect because they moved so fast.

If you find a nest next summer, first decide if you can live with them where they are.

Consider whether their aggressive defense of their nest might endanger someone who is allergic to their stings, or simply cause inordinate pain. Either way, just know that next year they’ll be gone. They don’t re-use previous nests; although a new nest will probably appear somewhere in the neighborhood.

A couple of weeks ago when I got home my neighbor called out to me, “Hey, Ted, look what the town did today!” He showed me the remnants of a large white-faced hornet nest in the Norway maple street tree on the neighboring lot. I hadn’t even noticed it was there. It wasn’t near any house or structure. The rest of the nest was gone and the street was littered with dead hornet bodies and an oily residue from the spray the town DPW workers used. There were some hornets still flying around the nest locale. I felt sad. They weren’t hurting anyone there. That was probably home base for the ones that were patrolling my hydrangeas. What was the right thing to do? Can we live with these fascinating but scary insects?

You’re probably getting a sense that I sort of like white-faced hornets. The black and white colors are beautiful, if you can forget the pain or the anticipation of pain. I love watching and listening as they scrape off the wood fibers. And I am fascinated by their aggressive and predatory behaviors. To me they seem almost oblivious to danger.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time watching them and never been stung. Well, there was that one time when I was a kid and got into a nest of them. WOW, did they hurt! I still remember the burning pain. You’d better believe I learned how to recognize those nests and keep a respectful distance! Aren’t you just dying to have a natural fly- and yellow jacket-control agent in your neighborhood? I believe one contributor to a website about white-faced hornets best describes how I try to think about them: “All in all a most interesting, helpful and wonderful insect.”

Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

To learn more about white-faced (also known as bald-faced) hornets, visit:
www.vespa-crabro.de/baldfaced-hornet/baldfaced.htm.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West Street, Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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