Stinging Commentary: 1

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Filed under Outdoor Notes

September 10, 2011

Late summer and early autumn seem to bring out the stinging insects. Having posted a note on yellowjackets, I thought I would move on to hornets.

Cindy Mead,  a superb naturalist and artist from central Michigan, often brings up the subject of Bald-faced Hornets. I have to suppose that she has had some memorable experiences with the critters. I certainly have.

Link to Cindy Mead's Website

Cindy Mead's website

The Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) [1] is a common wasp in our area. They are, in general, pleasant enough creatures—unless you tick them off. They pack a powerful sting, and they are fearless in applying it. That said, they are not easily roused. I have spent a lot of time watching them, and they have always allowed me a fairly close approach, whether to an individual or to the nest.[2]

Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata)

Bald-faced Hornet (Dolichovespula maculata)

Hornets build those large gray papier-mâché nests that hang in trees.[3] A nest can house up to 700 workers. They have cloaking devices that break down below 32 degrees. They are invisible until late fall—about the time the leaves are off the trees.

Hornets' nest

Hornets' nest from the Tuscarora State Forest

My only bad experiences with hornets have come from picking fruit. Hornets like rotting fruit. They don’t always wait for the fruit to rot, but will find any slight imperfection in the fruit and commence to eat a large divot into the pulp. Grabbing a piece of fruit and trapping a hornet in a divot with your hand will anger the hornet.

I am especially fond of pears. Sadly, so are hornets, and I have had a couple of significant learning experiences thereby.

Besides nourishing themselves with fruit, they like tree sap. Worker hornets also capture and kill other insects, which they take home to feed to the baby hornets. As testimony to their abilities in catching other bugs and their overall good natures, let me cite our old friend St. John de Crèvecoeur:

In the middle of my new parlour I have, you may remember, a curious republic of industrious hornets; their nest hangs to the ceiling, by the same twig on which it was so admirably built and contrived in the woods. Its removal did not displease them, for they find in my house plenty of food; and I have a hole open in one of the panes of the window, which answers all their purposes. By this kind usage they are become quite harmless; they live on the flies, which are very troublesome to us throughout the summer; they are constantly busy catching them, even on the eyelids of my children… By their assistance, I am but little troubled with flies. All my family are so accustomed to their strong buzzing, that no one takes any notice of them; and though they are fierce and vindictive, yet kindness and hospitality has made them useful and harmless.[4]

Now, the other way that you can truly anger these little guys is to physically attack the nest. I would be interested to know how our American Farmer brought that thing home and hung it up in the his parlour without displeasing the inhabitants (beyond “very carefully,” that is). I can’t see myself letting them wander around the vicinity of my kids’ eyeballs, flies or no flies.

Bald-faced Hornets at the nest entrance

Bald-faced Hornets at the nest entrance

I am not a big enough fool to attack a hornets’ nest, but it must be a memorable experience. A very nasty six-hundred yards of one of the nastiest battles of the Civil War came to be known by Confederate survivors as the hornets’ nest because of the angry sound of the bullets.[5] The fighting character of the hornet has also gained it other military respect. There have been eight U.S. Naval vessels named Hornet, from 1775 to 1970, to include two aircraft carriers.[6] The Navy no longer names its carriers after insects; they have switched to politicians.[7] Today the Hornet is the Navy and Marine Corps’ F18 fighter jet.

There is something familiar about hornets—in their conduct and their overalI appearance. They look somewhat plastic, almost mechanical. I wonder if the artist who sculpted the Star Wars stormtrooper helmet had some unhappy experience with hornets.[8]

"These aren't the droids we're looking for."

"These aren't the droids we're looking for."

I would have liked to show a photo of a Bald-faced Hornet in a divot on a piece of fruit, but I could not find one. I did, however, get some photos of a vicious invader–watch this space.

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[1] Not to be confused with Bald-faced Liars (Homo politicus) which tend to congregate along waterways. There is a large nest on the east bank of the Susquehanna, and I’m told of an even larger nest that extends to both banks of the Potomac. They are attracted to money.

[2] Please, kids, don’t try this at home.

[3] Literally, from the French, chewed paper—although in this case the hornets chew wood and make paper, they don’t cut up newspapers and paste them over balloons. At least, I don’t think so.

[4] J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, reprinted from the original ed., with a prefatory note by W. P. Trent and an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn. New York, Fox, Duffield, 1904. Letter II, 45. (Accessed 8 Sep., 2011 on line at http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/CREV/letter02.html)

[5] The battle of Shiloh was fought April 6-7, 1862. The Hornets’ Nest was at the center of the Union line. The Union forces, fighting from a sunken lane, rebuffed a dozen attacks before being surrounded, at which point they surrendered. There is some question as to how important the fight at the Hornets’ Nest actually was—but only among folks who were not there.

[6] The last two USS Hornets were the aircraft carriers. The first was key to the Allied victory at Midway in 1942, but was sunk later in the year. The second was named for the first, and saw duty from World War II to Vietnam. This was the Hornet that would pick up the crew of Apollo 11 on their return from the moon. She was retired in 1970 and is berthed at Alameda, CA, where she serves as a museum.

[7] Not a big switch, when you think about it. See footnote 1.

[8] Alas, we’ll never know. Liz Moore, who apparently sculpted the helmet based on the original Ralph McQuarrie design, has passed on. I don’t actually know anything about these folks, but I have looked through several interviews on line about the helmet-design process, and I find no reference to hornets. Nazis do come up a lot.

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