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GUEST COLUMN: Bald-faced hornets, vireos and me

Stanley Tate

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors and is a former Chieftains Museum board member. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers.

I found a bald-faced hornets’ nest on the front porch of our cabin in May 2014. It was only about the size of a baseball and I only saw one hornet perched on the outside of it. The hornets inside weren’t spooked and ignored me. I guess they didn’t consider me a threat. They should have.

In 2015 I discovered a large hornets’ nest under an eave of our house in Carrollton. I killed this colony, too, and destroyed the nest.

About two months ago my wife showed me a large nest in a camellia near our garage door. I let those hornets live, and now the nest is about the size of a five gallon Home Depot bucket. We and the hornets are now living in a state of watchful peace. I enjoy the sight of the telltale gray paper of the nest and the hornets’ striking black and white bodies.

A colony of bald-faced hornets starts out in the spring with one lone individual, the queen. She will have mated the previous fall and then crawled underground or to some other sheltered place to hibernate. When she comes out of her hiding place she shivers to bring her muscle temperature above 95 degrees, and then flies off to find food — she hasn’t eaten for at least six months.

She will feed on nectar from flowers and sap from sapsucker licks. Later she will be confined to the nest and will feed only on sugary secretions regurgitated by her grubs.

After she eats, the young queen becomes attracted to weathered dry wood, and with her mandibles working from side to side, she scrapes off fibers, mixes them with her saliva, and presto she has a glob of liquid paper pulp. This she applies to the underside of a tree limb, twig or some other structure to fashion a short stiff rod. Hauling in load after load of pulp, she flares the rod out to the sides and adds a battery of hexagonal cells much like the cups honeybees make out of wax. She then makes paper envelopes around her nursery and while releasing a little sperm that she stored from her fall mating, she deposits an egg into each hexagonal cup.

Each fertilized egg hatches into a white grub that is genetically female but most likely will remain a sterile “worker.”

To the queen hornet, time and temperature are inextricably linked. She is programmed to behave in ways that shorten the development time of her offspring so that she can raise several hundred of them during the one summer allotted for her life. If the nest cools, the eggs stop developing and the young stop growing. She needs to keep her baby factory going to raise lots of workers during the summer. Her first batches of workers are slaves that promote her objective of raising many reproducing offspring in late summer and fall. The sterile workers cooperate because their evolutionary “objective” is to help raise brothers and sisters who will insert the same genes they have into the next generation. Meanwhile, the colony as a whole is in competition with other colonies for resources to fuel its economy.

My interest in hornets and their nests is new and intense and right now it is probably matched only by that of a bird, the red-eyed vireo. The vireo uses paper from hornets’ nests in the construction of its own nests.

Given what hornets can do, I think this bird has a strange taste in nesting material. Hornet paper is hard to come by.

You can search for a hornets’ nest for many days and not find one, even in winter when such a nest is conspicuous from as much as a hundred feet away. It must be a burden for a vireo to find this material in the summer when old nests are not only rare but also nearly invisible and when the new nests are vigorously defended. There must be an advantage to using the hornet paper that offsets the costs of getting it. I wonder if the hornet paper, which might serve as a decoration for the bird, might ultimately serve as a prop that fools potential predators into avoiding the nest.

When vireos build their nests in May the hornets’ nests are still small — about the size of a vireo nest.

From a distance, from underneath, both look like gray blobs hanging from twigs. Might a crow, blue jay, chipmunk, or squirrel confuse one with the other?

If these predators have experienced a hornets’ nest defense before, then a mere glimpse of hornet paper on a shape that looks like a hornets’ nest may be sufficient to keep them from making a closer inspection. It is also possible that the paper on the vireo’s nest no longer serves a useful purpose and is more like our appendix, just there.

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him at henryt@bellsouth.net.