Starter Bald Faced Hornet Nest

2015 January 17

We were visiting Sandy’s parents down in Manchester, Michigan in the week before June 22, 2014. While we were there, they mentioned that they were concerned about a new (and rather unusual) wasp nest being built under the eaves of their garage. Since it was a new nest, it was not yet populated with wasps, so I just put a ziplock bag over it, sheared it off of the eaves with a putty knife, closed the bag, and popped it into the freezer for later. I then brought it home so I could photograph it with the bug camera.

The round part of the body was slightly smaller than a tennis ball. The long neck was just a hollow tube, and was probably a structure to protect the developing brood from drafts (and maybe make the nest easier to defend).

Inside the paper shroud, there was this cluster of brood cells where larvae were being raised. I didn’t see any adults, and it doesn’t look like any of the brood had emerged yet, so the nest was probably still being tended alone by the young queen that had founded it. She was probably out foraging at the time that I took down her nest.

The uncapped brood had all turned black. This might have been just because I froze the nest, and they turned black when they thawed (kind of like a potato will do)[1].

But, when I popped open the capped brood cells, the larvae and pupae inside them were still creamy white:

So I don’t know. Either the capping somehow protected the frozen brood from something like “freezer burn”, or the discoloration of the uncapped brood wasn’t due to the freezing/thawing at all. It might have been some kind of disease, similar to the foulbrood diseases that infect honey bees. If it was a disease, then the older ones would have been protected by being capped over and isolated before the rest of the nest got infected.

Anyway, this looked like a very distinctive style of nest, so I went poking around to see if I could get an ID on what kind of wasp built it. It turns out that starter nests with a long entrance tube like this are built by Bald-Faced Hornets, Dolichovespula maculata. If I had left the nest alone, and nothing else had happened to it, then by the summer it could have looked more like this one that Sam posed with back in 2011:

So yes, this was not the sort of nest that was really desirable right next to a garage door, and removing it early was the right thing to do.

[1] Once, back when I was living in an apartment by myself, I put some potatoes into the refrigerator. It was an old refrigerator with bad temperature control, and it would occasionally have excursions below freezing. And one day, I looked at the potatoes, and found that after freezing and thawing, they had turned into this black, evil-looking mush. So now I don’t put potatoes into the refrigerator any more.

7 Responses
  1. Katbird permalink
    January 17, 2015

    Wonderful! Thanks so much. I really enjoyed seeing all the life stages. I have been very curious about our bald-faced hornets (which are in the yellow-jacket group- not true hornets), but of course never got as brave as you. I will tell you that one of the entomologists at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History moved a living full-sized nest from a tree too close to the parking lot. She placed a handkerchief over the opening at the bottom while her boyfriend cut it down. She then carried it to another tree and placed it there. Most of the wasps stayed with the moved nest, though some were drawn back to the remains of the old one for a few days. She simply did not want the maintenance men to kill the wasps and I have always admired her for it.

  2. Carole permalink
    January 17, 2015

    I found one in my yard in the winter after the season was over. Fascinating to see how they start. Enjoyed Katbird’s comments, great save.

  3. January 19, 2015

    Katbird: If I every have one of these nests too close to a house again, I’ll have to try that moving method.

    Carole: What I’d *really* like to do sometime, is find one that is just starting, and get Sandy’s time-lapse plantcam on it to track its growth and development over the year.

  4. June 25, 2019

    So I have seen 3 of these this spring in the last 10 days. Please email me, I would like to discuss the “straw” design, and get some data from you please.

  5. Janet Robinson permalink
    July 4, 2019

    I have one on the underside of my deck. I was trying google image to see if that could help identify what type of wasp/hornet it was. It wasn’t very helpful – first it suggested “plank” and then after I cropped the image to just the nest it was quite such it was an exhaust system – haha! We will definitely try and move it to a better place, I leave them alone if I can, but this is too close to the party action.

  6. Lisa Denton permalink
    June 3, 2020

    I just found one outside my garage door. It’s quite interesting I’m going to leave it and see if it gets any bigger I’ve only seen one bald faced hornet go in it so far.

  7. Kristen Thomas permalink
    June 11, 2020

    6-10-20 Lancaster, PA. We found one yesterday next to our courtyard. We removed it this morning and placed in plastic bag and then in the freezer. A single hornet was flying all around the area soon after removal. Based on what I just read, probably the Queen. I feel bad that we had to remove due to its location. It’s amazing to look at.

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