I can swat mosquitoes and stamp red ants, but hornets have the ability to give chase and sting again and again. Their sting is not one easily ignored. I can garden with blackfly bites until the blood is running down my neck, and mosquito bites I barely acknowledge, but hornets carry a sledgehammer sting that is unforgettable. I always give hornets respect and distance, but this year I found myself with an orphan hornet larva I watched with increasing interest and loss of caution.
Every summer there is a new grey, papery, balloon-shaped nest built by bald-faced hornets Dolichovespula maculata, high in the eaves of my shed. I am never close enough to disturb them, so we generally co-exist in wary proximity. I have lived here over twenty years and can count close to that many old nests up in the rafters. It was a workable situation. This spring an adventurous queen choose to make her nest in a lantern swinging from a shepherd’s hook in my garden, not far from the back door. The hook was not very firmly planted in the ground, and walking by it to the outside dining table caused a small cloud of angry hornets to fly out, scouting for danger. It was impossible to weed within thee feet of the hook, and the lawn mower guy said he would not mow the grass anywhere near the nest. It was also quite close to the bonfire pit, and young visitors toasting their marshmallows for s’mores might easily back into it, leading to pain and tears. The well-behaved wasps high in the shed would be left to their daily affairs, the ones in the lantern would have to go.
I researched methods, but most involved hardware-store solutions that could also destroy the flowers and plants below the hive. I opted for high-pressure water. The advice online was simply to blast them with water and keep at it, squirting any that dared to attack. It also suggested doing it at night or early in the morning, when they were sleepy. I donned my full body net suit intended for gardening in blackfly season, and brought out the hose. My house has a well, and while the pressure is adequate for a gentle shower, it quickly became apparent it did not have the force required to knock the nest out of the lantern.
Wet hornets started waking up and flying out, seemingly confused. I had to stand five feet or closer for the water to actually make contact with the lantern, flowing in gentle arc. I squeezed the hose partly closed, getting a bit more waterpower, and filled the lantern with water. Some of the hornets flew away, others tried to get into my suit, the rest were washed to the ground. I finally got close enough to grab the lantern off the hook and lay it on the grass.
I pried the glass door open, and found a dozen more wasps still crawling on the nest. I hosed them off, and saw the inner nest exposed. I had never seen the inside of a hornet nest before. It was beautiful. Creamy, pearlescent domes covered some of the cells, others were empty, and some had pulsing larva. I had not really thought about anything more than getting the hornets out of our way, but the big chunk of intact nest fascinated me. I set it on the side of the house along with the hornets still protecting it and went to work, planning to come home and check it out more thoroughly.
This proved to be yet another lesson in seizing the moment. I came home and found the large hive had been shredded and the larva and wasps were gone. We have raccoons and skunks—the few random hairs at the crime scene pointed to a skunk. After weeks of long detours around the nest, warning guests about the hornets, trying to figure out how to remove them, and really wanting them gone, I still felt sad to see that they had been eaten. I found one small piece of hive with a few covered cells, and put it in a dish. I watched it a few days, and then noticed shadowy movements in one of the cells. I had an orphan Bald-faced hornet.
I watched it in the morning, after work, whenever I had the chance, and saw it start to chew its way out of the cell. A hornet life cycle in brief is: the fertilized queen lays eggs in the cells she built with chewed wood and saliva. She feeds them insect bits. Larvae or grubs develop, becoming sterile workers, which then feed more larvae, as the queen continues to lay eggs. The larvae seal themselves in with a silken cap, which hardens, and in the privacy of their sealed cells they turn into narrow-waisted wasps. They then use their mandibles to eat their way out of the cell, emerging as adults to go out and feed the next rows of waiting and hungry larvae.
I took endless videos of the antennae unfolding and reaching out, as the opening got larger. I have more videos of the gnawing on the meringue-like cover. I was obsessed and wanted to see the wasp emerge and fly. My husband kept trying to entice me away, but I sat camera in hand, focused on the insect eating its way out of the cell. The sound of the chewing mandibles had me fascinated. It was rhythmic, continuous, and relentless. There was no urgency however, just implacable, unstoppable chewing. I have lots of audio of that, but the background noises overwhelm it. Too bad, it would make fabulous lulling sleep music, right up there with morning birdsong and peaceful waves.
Finally I was reminded we had lunch plans, and had to go. Bringing it with me was frowned upon. My husband was aware of my reluctance to leave and suggested I put the hive in the fridge to slow activity down. I did, not sure if that would work or kill it.
When we got back home I ran to check on my wasp. I brought the piece of hive with my orphan, its sole living member, back out into the sun. After ten minutes, when I thought it was dead, it once again commenced eating its way out of the cell, as if nothing had happened. Forty minutes of video clips later, when it seemed this would be an hours-long process, I dodged into the house for a bathroom break. I had logged over three hours of watching, and progress was slow. I was really fast, but the hornet was faster. When I returned, it sat on the hive, fully emerged, stroking its head and back. Smugly, I might say, but cannot because as Maine Master Naturalists we are advised against anthropomorphizing.
I want another wasp to raise so I can see it as it chews its way into freedom. I checked the hive in the barn, but it seems deserted. Next year—and I will remember to live without lunch or bathroom breaks.
Oh, and in spite of much time spent close to hornets, drawing and photographing and simply staring, I did not get stung once.