Bee-ware of Buzzing
So you’re out and about, enjoying an early winter trek. Your familiar paths look different with the leaves down and the ground all brown or snowy white. You see interesting trails through the woods you hadn’t noticed during the summer, cool rock formations that had been hidden by greenery, and little twists and turns in the creek that had not been so obvious when the streamside ferns and flowers were lush. And then—holy cow, what’s that? That great big honkin’ hornets’ nest right there, right where you’d been walking under it all summer. When did that show up?
That distinctive conical paper nest is home to the bald-faced or white-faced hornet, which is really not a true hornet but a kind of yellow jacket. Dolichovespula maculata workers make the nest, which can house 400-700 of the little buggers, by chewing up naturally occurring fibers and mixing that glop with their saliva. Eewww. This activity takes place in early summer, following the work of a single, impregnated female who survives the winter and raises the first batch of workers by herself. You’ve got to respect her for that, even if the thought of it all scares the bee-jesus out of you.
For the past few summers I’d been noticing these hornets around the barn, although they didn’t have a nest there (believe me, I looked). They’d show up about mid-July, never really bothering me or the horses but just buzzing by as I was putting out hay or filling up the water barrels. I’d take a moment each day to sh out the unfortunates who had stopped for a swim in those barrels and found themselves in a watery jam.
“This has got to be good karma,” I’d say grimly, with my heart in my throat (I’m really, really afraid of bees) as I’d put a twig or a leaf into the water for then to climb on and then fling them none-to-gently to the ground, “You and your friends need to go play somewhere else.”
We had four large nests in our neighborhood this summer—one on the electric meter, of all places, that I’m pretty sure was built in a night. The omnivorous bald-faced are noted for their aggressive defense of their nests. Unlike honeybees, they can sting repeatedly and—here’s a neat trick—they can squirt venom from their stingers into the eyes of their adversaries. Don't ask me how they aim.