Baldfaced Hornets: Garden Guardians If Not Provoked

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

IMG_3932Baldfaced Hornets ( Dolichovespula maculate) are not bees and are not even true hornets. They along with yellow jackets are members of the wasp (Vespidae) family. Baldfaced hornets are unmistakable with their visible ivory white markings on their faces and are at home in the wildlands, rural towns, and urban cities of Oakland County. They pack a powerful wallop if provoked.

They are master craftsmen when it comes to nest construction. Unlike honeybees that create a nest of wax hidden inside a hollow tree, Baldfaced Hornets build grayish paper-like nests that approach peak size in August. The nest is constructed of chewed wood fibers that are mixed with saliva and may be over two feet from top to bottom, large enough to hide a watermelon!

IMG_3898Their nests may be high up in trees, hidden in shrubbery, or attached to man-made structures. A favorite location is under the protected eaves of buildings where they are sheltered from high winds, intense sunlight, heavy rain and predators. A colony of these social insects set up house-keeping under the eves of my house, creating excellent photo opportunities—and a work-for-free garden patrol.

Although Baldfaced Hornets collect nectar to feed to their young, they are skilled hunters of bugs, grubs, aphids, caterpillars, crickets, flies and smaller yellow jackets. They are the last thing many tiny garden pests ever see. When foraging for food the Baldfaced Hornets are rather docile and unlike their yellow and black striped yellow jacket kin, they rarely buzz about barbecues, soft drinks, pools and sweaty humans.

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If you get too close to the nest, they will consider you a clear and present danger and take appropriate defensive action. Worse yet, take a stick to a nest in a poorly thought out removal attempt and the defenders will boil out in an angry buzz and launch an assault you will not soon forget. Leave the nest alone and they will ignore your presence. A nest over a door, or under a porch may present a hazard. Some of the hornets can usually be seen guarding the entrance, which is located near the bottom of the nest, and approaching within about five feet of their nest is provocation. Don’t provoke.

Entomologists consider these black and white creatures social insects. That is important to remember because social insects work together, and they defend their nest together–vigorously. When a honeybee stings, the stinger breaks off and the bee dies.  Baldfaced Hornets have barbless, smooth stingers, and can sting repeatedly. For most people, it’s just a very painful experience, but for some it can lead to a dangerous anaphylactic reaction.

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As summer progressed, the size of the colony grew and may now exceed five hundred hornets but in the spring it was just one queen laying eggs. When the young larva emerged they took over nest expansion duties. Nest activity slows as summer fades, and the sole survivors of the colonies, by the first frost, are the already fertilized queens. The queens abandon their nests and seek out hibernation locations, usually under decaying logs.  The nests of these garden guardians are not used the second year. The dead larva and adults left in the nest become gourmet treats for many birds, especially the Black-capped Chickadee.

 Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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