I have really enjoyed the leaf color this year. It never lasts long enough for my liking however. I'm sure that I'm not alone in that complaint. When the leaves begin to fall, it amazes me how quickly that can happen. I go to bed one night with the trees full of leaves and wake up the next morning with leaves covering the yard!
Those falling leaves expose things in those trees that I never noticed all summer long, the Fox Squirrel nest near the top of my Hackberry, or the Northern Oriole Bald nest out near the end of that Black Cherry. A walk out in the woods produced a special treat recently. Up high in a Bur Oak was a large Bald-Faced Hornet nest.
There it was, plain as day resembling a gray colored beach ball caught high in the branches. The size of a hornet's nest and the hornets' reputation is often sufficient to alarm people. Fortunately, the aggressiveness of hornets does not match their appearance, although disturbing a nest or threatening an individual wasp will result in stings. Hornets are very protective of their colony and will usually attack if someone approaches within 3 feet of the nest. This nest, however, was located so high in the tree that no one was going to be able to disturb it, or the inhabitants.
The hornet colony is contained inside the nest that was constructed of paper-like material made from chewed wood fibers mixed with saliva. The nest is composed of 3 or 4 tiers of combs within a thick, multilayered outer shell. A single opening at the bottom allows the hornets to fly in and out. These hornet nests are usually located in wooded areas, attached to a tree branch, but I have seen them attached to shrubs, utility poles or even under house eaves or on siding.
Bald-faced hornets are large, black insects almost 7/8 of an inch long with white to cream-colored markings on the front of the head and abdomen. These hornets are beneficial predators that feed on other insects.
Each time I encounter a nest, I am amazed how large the nest can become when you think that it started with the efforts of only one insect the fertilized queen. In April or May, the queen selects a suitable location, constructs a small nest and begins raising her offspring. These workers take over the duties of enlarging and maintaining the nest, foraging for food and caring for the offspring while the queen functions only to produce more eggs.
Bald-faced hornets do not occupy their paper nests during the winter and they don't reuse the nests the next year. The colony dies each fall except for that fertilized female that will over winter in sheltered crevices (not in the nest) and start a new colony the following spring. So you guessed it, the best time to acquire a nest as an office or den decoration is in the fall after we've had a few nights where temperatures were below freezing. That will ensure that the nest will not contain living hornets. As an added precaution, you may want to put the nest in a freezer for a week. The nests will be in the best condition if taken during the fall, because they will deteriorate over the winter.
Here at the Grundy County Heritage Museum, we have accumulated a few specimens over the years. If you've never had the pleasure, stop by and have a look sometime.