Helpful Household Hornets

The lady on the phone asked: “Is there any way I can attract hornets to nest in the eaves of my house?” I was trying to come up with an answer…such as, “Excuse me, could you please repeat the question,” or “OK, who is this really,” when she offered, “Do you think if I spread some honey up there…”

Working at a nature center, I got many interesting phone calls and questions, but this one surprised me. So I asked the obvious: Why would she want them to nest in the eaves of her house?

Turns out she had called the nature center the previous year asking how to get rid of a hornet nest that was in her eaves. I had given her a couple of suggestions but then asked whether they had been a nuisance. Had they stung anybody? Was the nest located where someone might accidentally get too close? Because it was up on the second story, it was unlikely to pose a threat. My advice, in that case, was to leave it alone and watch for the hornets around the yard. Later in the fall, the nest would be gone anyway. Birds will pick it apart for any remaining insect morsels.

In our dealings with wildlife, doing nothing is an option that gets too little attention. This is particularly so when wasps are involved. She explained that she just assumed she was supposed to get rid of the nest. If it had been a potential threat, I would have agreed. Avoiding hornet stings is a good idea.

If there were a poster child for feisty, odds are good it would be the bald-faced hornet. Even the idea, “hornets’ nest,” conjures up extreme discomfort. That large grey paper sphere surrounded by armed and agitated insects is a perfect “no trespassing” sign. It makes you want to be elsewhere.

When enhancing home habitats, people are hoping to attract butterflies, birds, or maybe even bats, which have recently turned their image around because they consume prodigious amounts of flying insects. Hornets do too, but have a definite image problem, in part because they can be dangerous. Words such as cute or intelligent or useful don’t generally come up when considering these “social” insects.

And I know why. As a curious kid, I was once drawn to the large round grey paper balloon of a bald-faced hornet nest hanging in a bush in my grandmother’s back yard. Slowly I crept closer and closer to the opening, from which numerous wasps were coming and going. I eased up just inside 10 feet from the opening and stopped to watch. This was an unfortunate decision. They post guards near the nest entrance to watch for overly curious kids. Suddenly a spherical black blur buzzed from the nest. A stinging fastball, it zoomed straight through the strike zone to my face. My ineffective swing was way too late; I was out of there… my chin burning with an excruciating swelling agony. I had a new and a very painful appreciation for the critters’ unexpected speed, as well as depth of concern when it comes to their privacy.

Although intrusion into their territory is not well tolerated, I later discovered that not all hornets have the same degree of intolerance. I’ve inadvertently ventured closer to some nests with no ill effects. But I don’t recommend this!

In actuality, the vast majority of wasps are not aggressive, nor do they sting us mammals. It’s a very large group of insects, including thousands of species, and for the most part, they are solitary. Many of them are tiny and parasitize various species of insects and plants, and are effective pest controllers. Their reputations have been sullied by a handful of species known as “social” wasps, the so-called Vespids.

Included are hornets, ground-nesting yellow jackets, and paper wasps. These nest in colonies, which they protect with enthusiasm. Most of us are familiar with the big spherical gray paper hornet nests hanging in trees in late summer and fall. Their fellow Vespids, the yellow jackets also construct large paper nests, but conceal them underground in abandoned burrows or in hollow spaces in buildings or woodpiles. Paper wasps place their small nests up in eaves or under window shades with a couple dozen downward pointing paper cells.

Hornets, like other Vespid wasps tend to have Jekyll and Hyde personalities: Jekyll when away from the nest, Hyde when at the nest. For the most part, however, people know them only by their “Hyde” side. Many people have had similar experiences to mine.

Away from the nest hornets are preoccupied with chewing up wood for paper, or with hunting and gathering. It’s easy to observe or photograph them. They can seem awkward, even comical. I’ve watched them attacking crumbs, nail heads, or any object that might look remotely like insect cuisine (if you squint really hard). That frightening reputation is hard to maintain when you are trying to subdue the head of a nail, or rolling over with a blueberry. When they actually do capture insect prey, they remove the head and abdomen and keep the thorax (where most insect muscle tissue is located). This they chew up and feed to developing larvae back in the nest.

The bald-faced hornet, arguably our most impressive and feared native wasp, is thick bodied, large and black, with a cream-colored face and tail. Poet, Robert Frost, referred to them as “white tailed hornets,” a nicer sounding name than “bald-faced.”

The caller had decided the nest was remote enough so she had left it alone. Soon she began noticing the hornets around the yard. In her garden, hornets protected her vegetables by capturing pest insects. She had observed them capturing flies on her windowsills. With family and friends over for picnics, she said that flies would join them, that is until “her” hornets arrived, capturing these flies on the wing. This endeared the little predators, which gradually became part of the family, so to speak.

I found this hard to believe, that is, until a few years later when I saw hornets capturing biting flies on the wing from around our camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Neighbors had pointed out the nest to her and told her how to get rid of it. But she explained that these were her hornets, and nobody was getting rid of them!

In fall the worker hornets succumb to cold weather. After nuptial flights, fertilized queens (sole survivors of the colony) hibernate in woodland mulch, where they hope to avoid such predators as shrews through winter. They emerge in spring to start new colonies. Old nests deteriorate and go away. They are not reoccupied. I had explained to her that they would be gone whether she paid someone to remove the nest and kill the hornets, or not.

In fact her hornets were gone. Now she missed them and simply wanted them back. About all I could offer in terms of advice was to keep her fingers crossed and hope for hornets to return. And in the meantime, stick to organic pest control.