The Northwoods forests look drab and dull after the leaves fall from the trees. But there is at least one good thing about the loss of the leaves. Visibility through the woods is much improved. The hunter of big game or small game appreciates this. The nature nerd appreciates the visibility too. Suddenly, things one did not see during the summer stand out. Among these are bird nests, cocoons, and hornet nests.
The most striking of the hornet nests are those of the bald-faced hornet. These nests are about the size and shape of a football and hang from a branch of a tree or shrub. Suddenly, there it is, and you had no idea of its presence all summer! Sometimes it seems a miracle that nobody got stung because it is so close to trails or the yard!
But now, in late fall, it is safe to approach them or collect them. The life of the nest of the bald-face hornet lasts only one summer season. The hornets are dead and gone by November. The only survivors are the queens, which are fertilized, and seek shelter outside the nest. The colony is kaput!
It is an interesting exercise to collect one of these nests and dissect it. One can get a few clues about the amazing life that occurred inside the nest during the summer. It was a busy place! The purpose of the nest is a shelter for rearing the young. The hornet colony may have produced several hundred hornets during its brief existence! One thing you will not find in the nest is honey. This is one of the main differences between bees and wasps or hornets. Bees make honey. Hornets and wasps do not.
There is another big difference between bees and hornets or wasps. These insects need protein in their diets during their early lives as grubs. Bees get their protein from pollen; hornets and wasps get their protein feeding on other insects. They are hunters.
Most of us have been taught that insects are cold blooded creatures. Hornets, wasps, and some bees challenge that assumption. Bald-faced hornets can generate heat and they maintain a constant temperature inside their nests. Honeybees can do this too. Both like rather warm temperatures, above 90 degrees. If you dissect a nest you will see that it is made of several layers, which serve as insulation.
The hornet nests are made of a material very similar to paper. The adult wasps chew dry wood, which is the raw material. Sometimes the hornets or wasps can be seen chewing wood from dead branches of trees, on old wood fence posts, or even surfaces of buildings that lack paint.
During our long winters in the Northwoods, queen hornets are the only survivors of the colony. During the first warm days of spring they crawl out from their shelters and start a colony anew, just as the leaves on the trees are growing anew. These are two of the multitude of annual cycles of nature.
Jerry McCormick lives in Virginia, MN. He is a retired natural resources professional and a self-described nature nerd.