Picture a structure, built by tiny animals, that’s as complex as the Egyptian pyramids. A veritable fortress filled with many chambers, constructed by hundreds of individuals working together in an advanced society. A home that expands in dimension to accommodate the swelling population within. A home where the very material it is made from, is manufactured by its inhabitants. This describes the nest of the bald-faced hornet.
Early winter is a good time to spot hornet hangouts. These papery apartment buildings are often located up in deciduous trees, the fabric of the nest enfolding the slender twigs. Their presence is revealed as the trees discard their leaves. As an added bonus, the nest becomes inactive at this time of year. It’s safe to approach and even handle a nest after its been abandoned and a killing frost has decimated the nest’s erstwhile population. Paper wasps, honeybees, yellow jackets and hornets all nest in colonies. In the case of honeybees, the whole population overwinters by living off its stores of honey. However, with wasp, hornet, or yellow jacket populations, the vast majority of the colony dies off, leaving only the new queens. These queens overwinter by burrowing into the soil or protected cavities. Having been impregnated in the fall, they are ready to lay their eggs in the spring, thereby, starting a brand new colony.
My neighbours had a fine hornets’ nest sprouting from their crabapple tree. So, with their permission, I perched up on a stepladder and used gardening sheers to carefully clip the twigs holding it in place. It was shaped roughly like a turnip, rounded at the top and tapering to a soft point. The sole entrance into the nest was a 1 inch diameter hole offset from the bottom. The nest’s circumference at the widest point was 27 inches/69 cm, with a length of 15 inches/38 cm. I was surprised at how lightweight it was in my hands. It weighed in at only 4 oz/117grams. You really need to examine a nest up close to appreciate the artistry of it. It looked like a puffy quilted pillow made of soft newsprint. Bands of sand, grey and chalk-hued paper arced over the surface, the different colours reflecting the original source of the material. In the summer, I’ve seen worker hornets methodically chewing their way across dry wood on old unpainted fence posts and picnic benches. The wood fibres are mixed with the hornet’s saliva and then spit out to form the thin, uniform layers forming the interior and shell of the hive.
There’s nothing like some investigative work, so I spread out some newspapers on the dining room table, got a pair of sharp scissors, and said “Cover me, I’m going in!”. I gently snipped away layer after layer until I had removed one side of the paper shell. Inside were four suspended tiers packed with hundreds of hexagonal cells. Each tier was attached to the one above by one or more sturdy stalks and was free of the outer shell. Each hexagonal cell, at one time, would have held an egg, which then hatched into an immobile larvae. After metamorphosis, the larvae would have been transformed into a worker, male, or new queen. But now, this former “hive of activity”, once protected by fierce warriors, lay abandoned and revealing its secrets.