The other day we were doing a quick walk-around of the house with a handyman. We’d hoped to hire him to take care of a couple of relatively minor yet urgent jobs—and we did so. But while surveying the back yard we noticed a bees’ nest. Tucked up against the edge of the sunroom, attached to the downspout, gutter, and facing board, was a big gray papery mass. We assumed this must have been built over the last couple of weeks. We’re out in the back yard pretty regularly in the summer, even when it is persistently hotter than normal like this year. It wasn’t perfect porch weather, but we’d spent significant time there, in a place from which one could have seen the nest easily. We’d mowed, watered, picked basil and rosemary, and raked out there. The nest couldn’t have been there very long.
Since we have a pest control contract to ward off carpenter ants, termites, chipmunks, and other pests (sadly it does not cover white-tailed deer, the pest of pests in our neighborhood), we called the contractor the next morning. A meeting time was set up for the following day, and at the appointed hour Nixon, our main man, who I reckon to have been born between 1968 and 1974, arrived. Nixon knows about all sorts of critters, and he took one look at our nest and said “Bald-Faced Hornets.” We thought he said “Bold-Faced,” which would serve equally well. He sprayed as a precaution, though he doubted that there were any live bees there. “But it’s been there only a couple of weeks,” we explained. Nixon took the nest down, gaining access by our stepladder. There were many layers of papery gray sheets, with the asymmetrical yet harmonious shapes of so many natural objects built by living creatures. They left a pattern on the siding; I’ll need to go back and wash them off soon. Inside the torn-open structure the brood cells lay bare, caps gone, empty. The last hornets had departed long since.
Clearly we had just not seen the nest for the several months it had been there. Looked at it, probably, when it was full of activity, with hornets passing in and out of the large hole near the bottom on the side facing away from the house. But never saw it. It’s hard to imagine being so oblivious to such a vivid and dangerous life center in our own yard. On YouTube are several videos in which people try to stir up a hornet’s nest, and for the next several minutes the camera, many feet from the person taking the picture, is under constant attack by angry, buzzing, stinging insects. Turns out Bald-Faced Hornets are very common, even though I’d never heard of them before. They are actually a type of yellow-jacket, not a true hornet. They are very aggressive and persistent in chasing off attackers. They eat other insects, including yellow-jackets, and in the fall they die off, except for young fertile queens, who hibernate and breed new colonies in the spring.
Later that day, Jane observed a Downy Woodpecker pecking away intensely at the place where the nest had been attacked. I figured that the bird was probably attracted to whatever small vermin had been left behind when the nest was removed. The following day on my walk I heard a pecking noise up in a nearly leafless maple tree. Sure enough, there was a big, beautiful Bald-Faced Hornet nest, hanging from a limb free and perfectly formed. On it was a Downy Woodpecker hammering away. A week earlier the sight would have meant nothing to me. But then it seemed like a train of thought had come full circle, that I understood a little more about my world than I had before.
© Arnold J. Bradford, 2016