The leaves came down in a rush in last weekend's wind-driven rain, and most of the trees in our woods are now barren except for the tenacious oaks, whose reddish-brown leaves hang on into winter. So when the sun came out, treasures that were hidden by green foliage all summer long suddenly popped into view. Sundry bird's nests, of course, including the little cup that a female ruby-throated hummingbird carefully constructed of plant fibers and down, spider webs and lichens in the ancient apple tree by the front porch. Then there was the humongous bald-faced hornet's nest, hanging from a slender branch on a young sugar maple, that I had driven past a hundred times during the summer and never noticed.
Their name aside, bald-faced hornets are really wasps and not true hornets like the introduced European or giant hornet, a fact of interest mainly to entomologists. They are close relatives of yellow-jackets and both build globular paper nests, the difference being that the latter are in underground cavities, stumps and hollow logs or under leaf litter. I had a close encounter of the worst kind with yellow-jackets as a young angler. A fair-sized northern pike grabbed the Daredevil spoon that I dropped on an impulse into swirling water next to the riverbank, and all I could do was yank the fish out. Much to their annoyance, my prize catch landed smack dab on the entrance to the wasps' subterranean lodging and I was stung painfully several times before I managed to push a stick into the pike's gills and drag it to safety.
The bald-faced hornet's pear-shaped nests are constructed of chewed wood fiber mixed with saliva. The entrance hole is near the bottom and the walls of the nest are two inches thick, insulating the inhabitants from heat and cold. A single female--the queen--begins the wasp condo by making a few cells and laying an egg in each little room. She will feed the maggot-like larvae until they develop into infertile adult female workers, who add new layers of cells to accomodate the queen's eggs, which become more workers, etc. By summer's end the nest might be three feet long, holding four horizontally arranged combs of cells and as many as 700 hornets. At this point some of the wasps will be males and reproductive females--next year's queens.
Now, however, it's November. All of the hornets including the old queen are dead except for the mated females, who will survive the coming winter by burrowing into an old tree stump. And if you'd like a conversation piece in your home, it's perfectly safe to collect that big paper football and bring it indoors. You'll find tips and a neat photo showing the inside of the hornet nest at this link.