Nested sets

Sandy Gilliam brought by this nest of a colony of bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata). The nest was attached to the wall of his barn.

bald faced hornet nest

Bald-faced hornets are well-known for the vigorous defense of their nests, a strategy that often follows the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strike. Unlike honeybees, the female wasps can sting repeatedly without harm to themselves.

But this nest had no angry occupants. It was abandoned last year when the winter set in. This is part of the normal life cycle of the species: a solitary female starts a nest in the spring, builds a large colony through the summer, then the whole colony dies except for young queens who overwinter alone.

A glance at the nest’s entrance (located at the bottom tip of nest) shows that this is a special nest. Straw and feathers protrude. We can peek into the opening and see a tunnel of dry stems.

bald faced hornet nest inside from bottom

The nest was built against a wall, so it has no backing. Now that the nest is down we can easily see inside: another nest! House sparrows had climbed into the old insect nest, added some bedding of their own, then set up shop to breed.

bald faced hornet nest inside

This was a stroke of avian genius. No chipmunk or squirrel would be stupid enough to try to raid this nest. (In the tropics, some birds take this further, protecting themselves from raiding monkeys by nesting next to active wasp nests.) The nest also comes with its own insulation system. The hornets build multiple layers of cellulose around the core of their nest, allowing them to stay warm through the night and thereby start work earlier than most insects (see The Thermal Warriors by Bernd Heinrich for more on the the various ways that insects manipulate their thermal environments). The incubating mother bird no doubt benefited from the extra warmth.

bald faced hornet nest wall

The nest retained its old comb, revealing the hornets’ kinship with bees. Here are the hexagonal arrays again, but this time built from chewed wood, not wax.

bald faced hornet nest comb

bald faced hornet nest comb close

Entomological enthusiasts should note that although we call these insects “hornets,” they are more accurately called “wasps” or “yellowjacket wasps.” True hornets belong to the genus Vespa and have bulkier heads and abdomens than the more slender “yellowjacket” species (Dolichovespula and Vespula).

I’ll close with my thanks to Sandy for bringing this remarkable nest-in-a-nest to my attention.

23 thoughts on “Nested sets

  1. Martha

    I’m loving your book and have been on the look out for a hornets nest. This one is a beauty. I work at a firm called Nest and have acquired the most wonderful collection of nests, as a result. A hornets nest is on my list! Happy Holidays!

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you! Good luck with your search for nests. Around here some people gather them with hornets inside. The hornets like to eat caterpillars, so they make good pest control in gardens.

      Happy Holidays to you!

  2. Gayledrycreek

    I am enjoying your reports very much. I wanted to send this attachment for your info; a photo I took December 11 on our timber farm in Beauregard Parish, LA near the town of Dry Creek. My field guide says it is a Fly Agaric. Peace, (The Rev’d) Gedge Gayle, T’63, T’76

  3. Doug

    RE: “No chipmunk or squirrel would be stupid enough to try to raid this nest.”
    I’m not so sure about squirrels. I saw a squirrel find a plastic bag in a tree, carry it to a bird house that someone had put in the very top of a tree, pulled it inside, and when the bag puffed up inside the bird house threatening to suffocate it, it scratched out an opening at the designed opening, and I imagined that it had a nice insulated and waterproof house. I think that it probably read the warnings on the plastic bag.
    Plastic Bags Fly Better Than Birds

    Squirrels and I have heard
    plastic bags fly better than birds

    I think squirrels can read
    ’cause I saw a plastic bag in a tree

    He, a bird house grantee,
    a bushy tail scholar,
    took a bag along branches,
    a critter in a house for a dollar, but

    with a plastic puff
    it sealed the exit tough

    I heard frantic scratches
    ’til his head popped out —
    I had no doubt, he
    read the directions
    for a waterproof house

    When high winds disturb
    plastic bags fly higher,
    fly better than birds

    Which droppings from heaven
    shall a squirrel prefer —
    feather or plastic, if
    foulness is elastic
    — Douglas Gilbert

  4. Grace

    I loved this post. My Uncle James, who grew up on a farm in rural East Tennessee and spent his childhood rambling through the woods, used to tell stories about sticking empty whiskey bottles he found in the woods in the entrance to nests like these, “whanging on the hive,” and then watching with great amusement as the yellow jackets fired angrily out of the nest only to find themselves confined in the whiskey bottle. Of course, some of them managed to avoid the bottle, and James’ solution for that was “Get ye a cedar brush, boys” and “run low” through underbrush the yellowjackets couldn’t penetrate. “Whanging on the hive” is still a favorite expression in our family. This story certainly explains the jackets’ justification for ‘preemptive strikes.’

  5. flatland57

    The chewed wood pulp is formed into hexagonal shapes as well as the wax? That’s so interesting, as well as practical. How do they do this? Does the formation have something to do with their visual acuity?

  6. Denise

    Interesting post! I love what you are doing to try to get people to look closely at nature. There is so much to be learned by paying attention to the world – even to things we tend to abhor, like wasps.
    And those smart birds! Very cool!

  7. Jim Markowich

    So cool! Thanks!

    It seems that there’s a lot of opportunistic home re-use in nature. While researching groundhog burrows a few months ago, my wife found out that skunks, garter snakes, rabbits and even foxes would also make use of them.

  8. Bruce Burdick

    Your posts are a wonderful oasis from news of the day. Still I feel a need to wonder what biologists and teachers and writers can do to help President Obama in his efforts to stop another Sandy Hill primary school massacre.

    Page 142 of the Forest Unseen says “The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making.” This makes me feel distant from the natural world, and “survival of the fittest” makes me feel distant from my fellow man, my competition.

    Is there another view? Can teachers and writers speak more convincingly about the Oneness you say is rooted in Darwinian evolution? If a miracle is an event of extremely low probability, can we teach more frequently about the miracle of life? Could school science curriculums have a goal of seeing man as One with all of life? As well as testing for knowledge of the subject material, might biology develop tests that guide curriculum toward a feeling of Oneness and compassion?

    Instead of “survival of the fittest” – might biology look deeply and find that the “fittest” are those whose cells are successful at taking care of themselves and the cells around them in a particular environment. In social societies like honeybees and people (and their cells), societies are the healthiest when each being is successful at taking care of themselves and those around them. Might we pursue health (and not pursue being Number 1, unless it is “being number 1” in helping those around us?)

    Might pursuing a feeling of Oneness be how science and teachers and writers can help prevent tragedies such as the Sandy Hook primary school massacre?

    Hoping that thoughts of separateness will be replaced by the knowledge of how connected we are to each other and to life.

    Thanks, Bruce

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you for this comment.

      For me, “The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making” is a liberating thing. It does not mean that we are unimportant or uninteresting, just that the world does not revolve around us. We’re part of the community, not overlords ruling the community.

      The “survival of the fittest” is not a term that appears in The Forest Unseen. I find this a poor description of the process of natural selection which is about differential reproductive contribution to the next generation, not “survival”. The term was coined by Herbert Spencer, the social Darwinist. I’m no fan of social Darwinism — it muddles its scientific understanding of genetics with poor ethics.

      I do write the following, a statement that echoes some of what you write:
      “Evolution’s engine is fired by genetic self-interest, but this manifests itself in cooperative action as well as solo selfishness. The natural economy has as many trade unions as robber barons, as much solidarity as individualistic entrepreneurship.
      My peephole into the soil gave me a glimpse into some new ways of thinking about evolution and ecology. Or are they so new? Perhaps soil scientists are rediscovering and extending what our culture already knows and has embedded into our language. The more we learn about the life of the soil, the more apt our language’s symbols become: “roots,” “groundedness.” These words reflect not only a physical connection to place but reciprocity with the environment, mutual dependence with other members of the community, and the positive effects of roots on the rest of their home. All these relationships are embedded in a history so deep that individuality has started to dissolve and uprootedness is impossible.”

      Does any of this relate to the terrible events in CT? I’m not sure. Whether or not we see natural selection as a mostly competitive or cooperative process doesn’t matter here: in either case, gunning down a room full of children is unspeakably wrong and almost the saddest thing I can imagine.

      Teaching that humans belong here on this Earth (and are mutually dependent on each other and on other species) is vitally important, I agree. But I think that Oneness AND Separation exist in tension throughout all life. Our science has emphasized the latter, but is slowly (too slowly, perhaps?) waking to see the former as important. In my own teaching, helping students develop a sense of connection (and therefore compassion) is very important.

  9. silver price

    Wasps which have had their homes partially destroyed will become angry and aggressive. And they can remain mad for several days. To insure you do the job right the first time, attack the nest from a good position. This could mean climbing a ladder, walking out on a roof or scaling a tree. Many of these locations will leave you vulnerable and the last thing you want to have happen is to be stung by a nest of angry wasps while atop a 25 foot ladder. To insure your safety, a BEE VEIL , BEE HAT , BEE GLOVES and BEE SUIT may be needed. This equipment will prevent wasp stings and enable you to go about your task with confidence and conviction. Good protection is worth the investment – particularly if you have to treat a nest of ornery bald faced hornets.

  10. Annik La Farge

    David, I’ve just discovered a large and elegantly constructed yellowjacket nest in a crabapple tree. I’m inclined to leave it alone, and as it’s not posing any threat. Is there a reason to remove it? Maybe it too will be recycled into a home for birds once the wasps have moved on. [image at

    Thanks, as always, for your wonderful insights about the hidden lives in our landscape. The Forest Unseen has become one of my favorite books, one I plan to re-read every year or two.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you! I’m very happy that you’ve enjoyed the book!

      About the nest: as long as no-one gets too near, the nest poses little danger. This species attacks (painfully) when the nest is disturbed but otherwise bald-faced hornets are fairly peaceful, unlike the ground-nesting Vespula which often attack for no good reason.

  11. Pingback: Banoosh » » 10 Ways Nature Acts Like The Movie Inception

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