A longtime Bow reader recently wrote in part: "Right outside my porch there is a large bees' nest about the size of a basketball. It is located about eight feet up from the ground in an ash tree: My questions are: What material do bees use to build it? Where do they go in the winter or do they stay at home? I just recently noticed that the opening had been torn open about twice its original size: What would do that?"
In answering our reader's questions, first, I will note that the nest our reader discovered was not built by bees, but by a female hornet, or as frequently referred to, by a paper wasp. (With respect to these insects, the terms "wasp" and "hornet" are interchangeable.)
In winter travels if one comes across one of these large, paper marvels, don't be concerned about being stung, for, by early winter, all of the inhabitants have died, and the nests are empty. The only member of the settlement that remains alive is the fertilized queen and she will be elsewhere, hibernating until spring when she will start a new colony.
Created by the original paper makers, a hornet's nest is a very interesting structure. The paper is manufactured by collecting bits of weatherworn wood from fence posts, telephone poles, old barns and the like, kneading them together with her saliva, and chewing the mass into a little ball of pulp. After returning to the nest, the hornet rolls the balls into paper-thin cell walls. The outer nest covering is built in several layers to help modulate the interior temperature. The air between the layers of paper serves as insulation. Interior warmth is produced by the body heat of the larvae and the constant contraction of the muscles of the adults. This agitation, like human shivering, generates heat. If the temperature rises too much, drops of water are carried in.
Unlike homo sapiens, who build their houses from the bottom up, hornets build their nests from the top down.
Jean Henri Fabre, in his "Book of Insects," copyrighted in 1921 by Dodd, Mead and Company Inc., described the inner workings of a hornet's nest as follows: "If we open the thick envelope of the nest we shall find, inside, a number of combs, or layers of cells, lying one below the other and fastened together by solid pillars. The number of these layers varies. Towards the end of the season there may be ten or even more. The opening of the cells is on the lower surface. In this strange world the young grow, sleep, and receive their food, head hanging downwards.
"The various stories, or layers of combs, are divided by open spaces; and between the outer envelope and the stack of combs there are doorways through which every part can be easily reached. There is a continual coming and going of nurses, attending to the grubs in the cells. On one side of the outer wrapper is the gate to the city, a modest unadorned opening, lost among the thin scales of the envelope. Facing it is the entrance to the tunnel that leads from the cavity to the world at large."
With respect to what may have torn open our reader's nest, several insect eaters may have done so to see if any were left inside.
Years ago, one day while my late wife, Mildred, and I were walking through the woods in late fall, we came across a hornet's nest that was holding the interest of two blue jays. We immediately stopped to watch what they were up to.
The Jays took turns inspecting the entrance to this hornet's castle. While working at the bottom of the gray paper structure, the jays "stood" in the air, held steady by their rapid wing beats. A hummingbird would have behaved in the same manner if its curiosity had been so piqued.
As we watched the blue jays in performance, they were attempting to tear out the entrance of the nest. If they thought that a tasty meal awaited inside they must have been young jays and had not yet learned that when cold weather comes the workers and drones die, and the nests become abandoned by the queen. The jays made several forays, and not finding anything to continue their interest, they tired and left the hornets nest to the vagaries of the winds.
These structures are begun by the female or "queen," the only wasp to live through the winter. When they awaken to life, warmed by the spring sun, these female wasps select a tree branch or a place under the eaves of a building and in the case of the ground-dwelling wasps, a hole in the ground.
The queen then goes to a weather-worn rail or old stump and there sits and gnaws lengthwise of the grain until she has formed a little bundle of wood fibers in her jaws to build a new home for her young. Wasps are fascinating insects, but, do not forget, they are easily provoked when stirred up.
Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.