Friday, August 1, 2014

Stirring Up A Hornet's Nest, Or Not

Brother Henry called recently with an intriguing tip. 
Apparently a queen of the baldfaced hornet clan, Dolichovespula maculata, had located her summer residence in the middling branches of a small Bradford pear tree in Joyce and Elbert's front yard. 

At first a simple inverted origami cup, shelter enough for a tiny handful of brood cells, the nest escaped notice. 
But as the queen's initial offspring reached maturity and grew in number, and their edifice of paper expanded, the neighbors took note.

Less gracious (and courageous) folk than the Holders might have panicked and destroyed the burgeoning hive, but with cool heads and kind hearts and more than a little curiosity, they took the decision to watch and wait a while...

So while one set of neighbors watched and waited, another tirelessly chewed wood and added saliva and converted cellulose into layer after sturdy layer of wallpaper for the busy nursery within, and the queen's family grew.

Almost before the Holders realized it, July was at an end, and their front yard was home to an impressive, full-blown hornet's nest. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of winged workers now hustled in and out of the nest, some bolstering the construction detail, others hunting for insects to feed the growing brood within.

These "hornets" are actually one of several native species of North American yellowjackets, wasps from the family Vespidae, which live out their lives in the span of a single spring and summer season, except for a few fertile females which will overwinter in a sheltered spot and emerge to build a new nest next spring.

The baldfaced moniker refers to the pale yellowish-white markings on the hornets' faces, and is balanced by three white stripes or bands on their business end. 
While their skills as papermakers and engineers and builders are remarkable, these bald faced flyers are perhaps best known for their ferocity in defense of the queen and her nest, spawning the popular admonition against "stirring up a hornet's nest."

In fact, as I compose this last frame, it appears that I've been noticed by the just-emerged bald-faced beauty down in front, a signal to the wise photographer that today's session is at an end, and triggering distant, not-so-happy memories of another such encounter. . .

Once upon a time, under a sweltering summer sun in the backwoods of rural Harnett county, Brother Henry and Old Friend Matt spent the afternoon fishing with their shirtless friend and brother from the dam of an old farm pond. As evening drew nigh, and supper time beckoned, they led the way along the narrow earthen dam to where three dusty dirt bikes patiently awaited their riders.  

Senses dulled by the too-much-sun of a long and lazy afternoon in July, only too late did I notice the brown and white-streaked gray hunk of a hornet's nest neatly encasing a wood duck box on the trunk of a small pine.

Too late, because I was bringing up the rear, and Henry and Matt were already standing just beyond the massive hive, poles poised to strike. As the resounding whack of bamboo on pine roused me from my reverie, my eyes, wide with alarm, met the jet black eyes of half a dozen baldfaced hornets, equally alarmed, just before they launched with their legion of reinforcements.

In less time than it takes for a hornet's wings to beat twice, fear uncorked a gallon-sized bottle of adrenaline and thoroughly infused my leg muscles. I felt, more than heard,  the hornets as they pursued their bare-backed target, since we were all moving much faster than the speed of sound. I must have slowed a bit as I approached my bike, because I heard quite clearly the sound of my companions' laughter as they zipped away along the sandy lane.

The worst of the stings was the one that landed on my bare ribs, in the nearly fleshless area just below my armpit. Fortunately, the tip of the stinger lodged in my rib bone, effectively stopping the release of some of the venom, so the pain and bleeding and swelling was not as bad as it could have been. But it was bad enough that I'll never forget it, and I'll never get that close to a hornet's nest again.

Stupid people tricks notwithstanding, baldfaced hornets are actually very beneficial animals, consuming large numbers of insects, including other smaller yellowjackets, during their rather short lives. So, if you find yourself fortunate enough to encounter these impressive animals, take a moment to observe and admire them, just be careful not to stir up the nest.

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