In Brooklin, Maine
If you’re brave enough to get very close, you’ll discover that the Bald-Faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) does indeed have no hair on its skull-like face. However, that does not make this ornery insect a hornet. The only hornet we have in this country is the European Hornet (Vespa crabro), which was introduced here accidentally, much to the chagrin of the many insects it eats – including wasps.
Speaking of which, that is what the Bald-Faced Hornet is: a common wasp. Of course, there are only about five non- entomologists who would care what this insect was named or who otherwise would go to any trouble to try to sort out the differences among bees, wasps, and hornets. What is more important to most people is knowing whether the insects buzzing nearby are thinking of attacking. And, in the case of Bald-Faced Hornets, these insects are known for repeatedly stinging people who get close to their nest; their stings actually have killed some people who are allergic to the venom.
Which brings us to the inspiration for this esoteric piece. Barbara discovered a large, still-active nest of Bald-Faced Hornets within a winterberry bush along the edge of a path on which we often walk. Such nests usually die out by September. As of this dappled October morning, however, our BFH nest was a veritable O’Hare of incoming and outgoing flights.
Bald-Faced Hornet nests are shaped like an upside-down pear. They’re made from wood pulverized into paper by the wasps, which have an artistic talent for swirling the nest’s outside texture into attractive oyster-shell-like designs. Our nest is about two feet long and about a foot at its widest point. Such nests have been estimated to house anywhere from 200 to 400 BFHs.
Active Bald-Faced Hornet nests contain impregnated queens who will leave when the colony is dying from one or more freezes. These queens will spend the winter locally (under bark, in rock crevices, etc.) and emerge in the spring to start a nest and colony. The colony will consist primarily of worker females, but will include some male drones that can impregnate the queen and potential queens. The drones can’t sting; the females can and will use their weapon to kill other insects for the colony’s food, including their cousins, the Yellow Jackets. When other insects are diminishing in the fall, foraging Bald-Faced Hornets will bring back nectar. These workers are about one-half to five-eighths of an inch long; queens are about three-quarters of an inch long.
For the three or so other non-entomologists who might be interested in knowing some of the differences among bees, wasps, and hornets, here’s the apparent essence:
>Bees: most are hairy, good-natured pollinaters that eat nectar. If the circumstances make them feel obliged do sting people, their singers and part of their stomachs are impaled in the victim and the bees die. But, when they sting other insects (which is why they have stingers), this does not happen.
>Wasps: most have little or no hair and are aggressive near their nests or food; they eat insects and some eat food waste (especially sugary substances). They can sting repeatedly without harming themselves and some (including the Bald-Faced Hornet) can bite as well as sting.
>Hornets: these are large wasps that are distinguished by their wider heads and larger abdomens behind the narrow wasp waist. They have some hair and will sting repeatedly when provoked. Their preferred food is insects.
If you haven’t had enough, you can view a few more images of our Bald-Faced Hornets and their nest by clicking on this link:
Barbara and Dick