At Coast Central Credit Union in Arcata, the newcomers had set up camp outside and were menacing customers. A similar group had taken up inside a shed in Kneeland where a man keeps his lawnmower. Yet another hung around, prickly-humored and uninvited, too close to a home's window and garden hose.
These were the new neighbors, and they were not welcome.
"Is there something we can do that's constructive instead of just killing them?" asked Ken Collins, a lawyer and musician whose tenant in Kneeland was afraid to enter a shed now because of the hornets.
What Collins and others are really wondering is, whatever happened to the hornet-getters? You know, the Weiderts, whom the Journal featured in July 2010. The Grass Valley family used to come here regularly to collect our unwanted hornets — for free — because they could sell them to a company that makes anti-venom. They would set up a contact number with a local answering service, and when they got enough calls they'd drive up. But the Weiderts haven't come here lately, and their phone number is out of service.
We finally tracked down Ryan Weidert via Facebook and he says he's moved on to other things. His parents live in Washington now and collect north of Seattle. His brothers still live in central California and still collect hornets, but they weren't getting enough calls in Humboldt to warrant the trip up here.
So what's a pestered Humboldtian with a fat, papery hornet's nest to do?
You have options. There are local exterminators who are skilled in hornet and wasp removal. And a few of our many local beekeepers do hornet and wasp removal, generally for a fee. For instance, Dick LaForge, of Freshwater, charges $35 an hour, including driving time, with an hour minimum charge.
LaForge, who used to refer people to the Weiderts, says he doesn't do hornet removal for the money. In fact, he tries to talk people out of it.
"I'm hoping I don't get too much business out of this, because I have other things to do," says the beekeeper, gardener and player of low brass instruments who is "retired, supposedly."
More important, he says, hornets are beneficial. They eat caterpillars and other insects that chew up gardens. They're pollinators. Some might bother you at picnics and try to eat your hotdog. Some won't.
"We should try to live with them," LaForge says. "If a nest is high on a house — for example, under second story eaves — or high in a tree, [they] will go about their business and not bother anyone. They are dangerous if the nest is within 10 feet of the ground in an area where people frequently pass by, especially if the nest could be accidentally hit with something. Nests in shrubbery are dangerous as any shaking makes them defensive. Nests in the ground are not dangerous if you can avoid disturbing that area, but quite dangerous if anyone could step on it or walk very near it."
If they are not in a dangerous place, leave them alone, he advises. They are part of nature's balance. And, anyway, they'll be gone by winter.
We have three species here: Black and yellow Dolichovespula arenaria builds grey paper balls under the eaves of roofs and in shrubs and trees. Vespula alascensis, also black and yellow, builds similar nests underground and in cavities (these are called yellow jackets). And Dolichovespula maculata is black and white and makes gray paper ball nests under eaves and in shrubs and trees; it's called the bald-faced hornet. All three have the same kind of life cycle, says LaForge.
"A single queen starts a nest in spring, raises a few female workers, who then help raise more," he says. "The colony gradually grows in size and number until, in mid to late summer, it can have thousands. In fall, queens and drones are produced. These mate, and the queens hide and hibernate individually. The nest is abandoned and is not re-used the next year. In spring the queens each try to start a new nest."
That said, our hornets are not endangered, so LaForge says it's OK to remove some.
"I probably did 25 to 30 nest removals last year," he says. That's out of the 50 to 60 calls he received; he talked about half of his callers out of removing nests.
People have been calling him since April, this year, and he expects more as high summer progresses. When he's hired, he drives over, dons his beesuit, flips a plastic bag over the nest and removes it, then swats stragglers dead. The removal typically takes 15 to 20 minutes. The hornets who aren't caught might survive nestless three days, and might try to rebuild.
Others remove nests, too, including Drew Barrett of McKinleyville who says he does it all over Humboldt County. The Humboldt County Beekeepers Association can direct you to these hornet-getters: humboldtbeekeepers.org. Or you can call your pest guys.
That's what Aileen Arrieta did to get rid of her bald-faced hornets (famous all over Trinidad). She didn't want to pay LaForge's travel time and rent a ladder, and she'd chucked the self-help option after scaring herself silly watching "a few really terrifying YouTube videos about hornet removal."
In the end, she says, "it was uneventful."
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