Interlude: Bald-faced Hornets meet the Druid   Leave a comment

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A bald-faced hornet up close

Dolichovespula maculata is the resplendent Latin name of a North American insect variously called the bald-faced hornet (BFH after this), the blackjacket, or the bull wasp. “Long wasp spotted” is one literal translation of the Latin (the Im-maculate Conception was “spotless”), and captures well enough their appearance. They’re bigger than most wasps and hornets in the U.S., with a temperament to match. I didn’t take the pic of this brisk specimen to the right (though the larger pics below are mine). The BFH defends its nest vigorously if approached too closely or disturbed.

A short side note: childhood stings, and a love of honey and a relatively bug-free outdoors, taught me a healthy respect and appreciation for bees and wasps, and I’ve learned more about them over the years, some of it firsthand. Most wasps and bees are beneficial, of course, wasps in particular often feeding on insect pests.  We’ve had a wetter summer than most this year here in Vermont.  Normally that would bring hordes of insects, but we’ve had markedly fewer mosquitos and other pests this summer than any year since we’ve moved here. And the hornets get the credit — we’ve watched them bring back insect after insect to the nest.

The vital honeybees, major pollinators and crucial to many human plant foods, continue to face sharp declines around the world from causes that still aren’t competely understood, and they need our protection. As a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture bluntly puts it, under the heading “Why Should The Public Care about What Happens to Honeybees,” “About one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.” Their troubling decline is thus not a small problem. (You can read about one Druid’s adventures in beekeeping here at the fine blog The Druid’s Garden.)

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Mud-dauber wasp nest

We’ve been in our Vermont house since winter 2008, and we’ve co-existed well enough with bumblebees, honeybees, yellowjackets and the more familiar (to us) mud-dauber wasps, which, with a ready supply of mud from our pond, often build their tubular homes above the same back door.  They’re also more placid species; we eye each other when either my wife or I go out the back door, or hang or retrieve laundry.  Hello, busy people.  We come in peace. Carry on, carry on.

It’s important to note here that neither of us is allergic to bees or wasps — an allergy would make this a very different post.   Occasionally one or two wasps buzz around our heads, investigating.  Once or twice one landed on our hair or an arm or face for few seconds, then flew off again.  No stings.  We’ve heard stories from neighbors of BFHs landing on a person, plucking off an insect about to bite, and flying off.  They’re definitely not timid.

This summer, after we returned from our 7-week cross-country road trip, not one or even two but three BFH nests loomed under our eaves.  It was our first encounter “up close and personal” with this species.  The BFH nest below is approximately football- or coconut-sized, and much larger ones, housing 400 or 500 or more wasps, have been reported.  (The papery exterior shields a series of combs that resemble a beehive’s, helping balance out temperature fluctuations.  We’ve had several 24-hour periods recently ranging from 45 at night to 90 during the day.) On the windowless and doorless north side of our house, a nest would hang away from foot traffic,and possibly escape our notice for days or weeks.  One of the two other BFH nests hangs from the eaves over our bedroom window, but that has a good screen and tight-fitting crank-out windows.

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One of the bald-faced hornet nests under our eaves

This nest, however, hangs just left of one of our back doors, right next to our clothesline. So far, we’re following a policy of “wait and see.”

Bald-faced hornets don’t (yet) winter over in the Northeast. New queens born in the autumn typically survive underground, while workers die off. Everything we’ve heard about BFHs indicates they also don’t return to an old nest the next year. A lot of work for a single year! Just to be safe, however, we’ll remove the nests late this fall — after several good hard frosts.

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too close to a door …

Treating the eaves early next spring with Ivory soap as a natural repellent will be our first follow-up.  We’ve heard that painting the eaves sky-blue has also worked for some home-owners in southern states, where this hornet is more common. With global climate changes, we’ll probably continue to see more of them here in the north.

Peaceful co-existence is our goal. Meditation and inner conversations with the wasps, thanking them for keeping down the pests, but asking them not to nest on our house, is another equally important remedy I’m now learning and practicing.

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Images: bald-faced hornet close-up; mud-dauber wasp nest.

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