Hornet Nursery

posted in: Journal, Nature | 2
Hornet Nest
Paper wasps resting on their small nest at the side of a mountain trail.

Out in the garden this afternoon I was clearing away some wild strawberry and dokudami (also referred to as “jyuuyaku”, meaning “Ten Medicines”, or chamelon plant: Dokudami ) when I nearly upset a young queen paper hornet minding her yet newly built paper nest. Since the nest was located right behind the storm shutter next to our back door, I sadly decided that I would have to move the nest to prevent the chance of being stung later in the summer when the nest would probably be seething with a hundred or more citizens.

When the queen turned away to tend to one of her young, I flipped my hand gently over the nest, knocking it to the ground. Naturally mother hornet was terribly upset and confused and, in that uncanny way of bees and wasps wherein they remember the exact spot of something that is no longer there, she hovered around the now vacant point where the nest had been attached.

Reaching down to the ground I picked up the nest and turned it over to examine the family. The nest was about 3 cm in diameter and about 2.5 cm thick, with a tiny horn jutting out from the top like the base of an upturned wine glass. This horn is what attaches to the surface of the point to which the nest is attached. It is quite an unlikely attachment point, being so small and flimsy looking, but never-the-less it manages to hold up quite enormous bulks of nests.

The nest is made of chewed cellulose, glued together with the saliva of the hornets, and this combination creates a substance not unlike papier mache. The result is a brownish-grey, paper-thin wall that is variegated with brown hues, depending on the wood sources that the hornets gathered the material from. The nest is as light as a feather and makes a dry, rasping sound when scratched.

To house the eggs and the growing larvae, a series of round paper tubes fan out from the attachment point, the largest and oldest tubes in the center and gradually tapering to still unbuilt tubes at the outer edge of the nest. When viewed from straight on, the openings to the tubes resemble the face of a honey bee comb, with similar, hexagonal sides and three-point joints. The queen, which lives out the whole winter after having been fertilized early in the autumn of the previous year, lays her eggs from the center out, and as the larvae hatch and grow, she builds up the tubes around them, until the oldest larvae are encased in the oldest, longest tubes, and the unhatched eggs occupy the tiny, shallow, outer tubes. The oldest larvae then go through their metamorphal stage, turning into dormant pupae and having their tube papered over with a cap. When they transform into full-winged adults they emerge from the tube and begin the business of helping the queen care for the nest.

In my hand this afternoon were about eight larvae with yellow button heads and white wriggling bodies. Six of the older tubes were capped over, the young adults soon to emerge. Along the periphery of the nest was a ring of tiny, pure white eggs, planted right in the center of each tube.

I placed the dislodged nest on top of a trellis near the spot where the nest was attached before, close enough for the queen to find it again. What I would do would be to wait until nightfall, when the queen would be sluggish in the cool air, and wrap a thread around the attachment point of the nest. I would carry the nest over to the back of the garden, where no one would chance blundering into, (including the children next door who often climb over the fence into my garden) and tie the nest to a new attachment point on a drain pipe at the side of the building. Here the hornets would rework the severed attachment point and make it stronger.

Last year the same thing happened and after the move a nest about 12 centimeters long was built by the citizenry. I still have the old nest sitting on my desk.

Most people fear wasps and hornets because they don’t understand them and don’t know how to move around them. In general, hornets will do no harm if you don’t scare them. Move slow, never jerk away from them or wave your arms wildly, and in most cases you will be fine. When observed from close up they are graceful and beautiful. They’ve had millions of years to develop and it shows. They even invented paper long before we did!

2 Responses

  1. Steve

    Beautiful post. Reminded me of a book I read in college that I still have in my office, “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold. Have you read it? If you haven’t, I would think you might appreciate it. Leopold writes about a different part of the world, but it seems that you look at things in a similar way.
    Thanks for sharing your observations.

  2. Miguel

    Hello Steve,

    Thanks for your compliments. To be compared to Aldo Leopold is quite an honor, seeing as he is one of the founders of the environmental movement in the U.S. I’ve read Sand County Almanac a number of times and it is one of the permanent nature books on my shelf. Other writers I both love and aspire to emulate are: Barry Lopez (one of my heroes, “Arctic Dreams”), Edward Abbey (“Desert Solitaire”), Robert Finch (“Outlands”), Annie Dillard (“Pilgrim At Tinker Creek”), Howard Michael Pyle (“Walking the High Ridge”), and many more. If you haven’t read any of these people, I definitely recommend them.

    Even though I lived and grew up in Japan (I’m German/Filipino/American) I also lived in the States (Oregon, Boston, New York), so much of what I’ve learned about nature and how I feel about it, was influenced by America. I will always cherish my memories of Oregon, to which I might someday like to return.

    cheers!
    miguel

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