HumBug: The Bald Faced Truth

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A profile shot of a worker bald faced hornet. - PHOTO BY ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Photo by Anthony Westkamper
  • A profile shot of a worker bald faced hornet.

I decided to devote this week's contribution to a single unpopular species. Known for its large size, aggressive behavior and powerful sting, the bald faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) is liked by few people. They're neither completely bald faced nor technically hornets. Their white faces are sparsely covered with setae (hairs) and they are, in fact, the largest member of the yellow jacket clade of wasps.

When I spotted one building a slender, gray stalactite from the ridge of my greenhouse, I knew it was preparing to build a nest. Instead of reaching for the wasp killer, I reached for a camera. I really wanted to find where she was gnawing the wood she ground into a pulp to build her nest. I was going to stain some paper with food coloring and try to get her to build a multi colored hive. Sadly, I never found the source of her building materials.

This worker let me get that close with no mishaps. - PHOTO BY ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Photo by Anthony Westkamper
  • This worker let me get that close with no mishaps.
Over the next few days I visited often. Whenever I got too close, she let me know by facing me, putting her wings back in a “V” shape and vibrating them loudly. To quote an immigrant friend, “I love this country, even the snakes warn you.” Not only does she sport black and (well almost) yellow aposematic coloration (conspicuous coloration or markings of an animal serving to warn off predators), but also what I've termed “aposematic sonification." Like a rattlesnake, she makes warning sounds.
A bald faced hornet prepares a fly for transport to her hive to feed the babies. - PHOTO BY ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Photo by Anthony Westkamper
  • A bald faced hornet prepares a fly for transport to her hive to feed the babies.
They do have their good points. First and foremost, as good mothers, they are voracious hunters of other insects, including yellow jackets, which they chew up and feed to their young. A hornet or paper wasp nest near your garden can provide both a lot of pest protection and pollination services, as the adult workers feed largely on nectar.

The first four cells of her nest, each containing a single egg. - PHOTO BY ANTHONY WESTKAMPER
  • Photo by Anthony Westkamper
  • The first four cells of her nest, each containing a single egg.
She laid eggs in the first four cells she had built and then one day never returned. I suspect a bird probably got her. The eggs will never hatch and the nest will forever be unfinished.

If one starts to build her nest nearby and you spot it before the first generation of workers hatches, watch for her to leave to gather wood or feed herself, and knock it down. Then leave for a while. Most likely she will get the message and move on.

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