As we walked through the yard toward the front door, my wife pointed toward the roof and said delightedly, “Look at the hornets’ nest!” An acorn-shaped globe hung from the bricks and the base of the gutter. Gray, multi-layered, and the size of a soccer ball, it housed a busy colony of bald-faced hornets.

Pleased that they had positioned their nest near the bedroom window, we never considered discouraging the hornets. They had picked a secure and remote location, far from any human disturbance. We felt safe from their stings with three layers of brick wall separating us from them.

Later that afternoon I stood in the front yard and trained the spotting scope squarely on the opening at the bottom of the paper nest. The hornets and I were at least 20 feet from each other, so I could safely observe and photograph them without causing them distress.

Several hornets had gathered around the entrance opening, rapidly fanning their wings. This evidently helped cool the nest, now exposed to the hot afternoon sun. Other hornets, bustling in and out, pushed past them.

The nest consists wholly of a papery substance the hornets make by chewing wood and mixing it with their saliva. Deep in the cavity I could see the edges of the lower gallery of six-sided cells which form the nursery. Inside those cells the queen hornet lays her eggs, which hatch into larvae that develop into female worker hornets. The workers feed, clean and care for their younger sisters, finally sealing up the chamber when the larvae shed their larval skins to become pupae. A few days later a beautiful new black and white hornet with amber wings emerges from the cell.

In July the developing hornet colony is all female, just the queen and her worker daughters. As August progresses something miraculous happens. Nourished by a nutritious diet of late summer insects, spiders and plant nectar fed to her by the workers, the queen lays the final eggs of her career. These hatch into larvae which become queen hornets. As they attend their developing royal sisters, some of the worker hornets start to lay and tend their own unfertilized eggs which, amazingly, hatch into males.

In September the new adult queens and males fly off and mate, leaving the old queen and any remaining workers at the nest where they eventually succumb to age or autumn cold.

The free-flying males also die but the fertile young queens find a snug place to hibernate, carrying the next generation of hornets through the winter. Next spring each surviving queen builds a small paper brood nest. There she lays eggs which she tends until her fully grown daughters can care for her and all future eggs she produces. The cycle begins anew.

Hornets are beneficial insects that prefer to mind their own business and their beautiful architecture shouldn’t be destroyed. But please remember a nest of hornets near the house might cause harm where passersby could easily rile the inhabitants and get severely stung.

In that case don’t try to remove the nest yourself. Have a professional do it safely and efficiently. Like all wasps, hornets boldly attack anything that threatens or disturbs their nest. Their stings are painful and potentially dangerous, especially to those who may be allergic to them.

– Doug Pifer writes from his home in Shepherdstown

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