Yes, I know, it’s supposed to be “Long Live the Queen” but in the case of hornets, the term “long” is relative. A queen Bald-faced Hornet is lucky to live a little over a year – and to do so she has to sleep through half of it. Considering that the average life of a run-of-the-mill worker Baldie is closer to three months, of course, her reign is considerable. Perhaps “Longer than average live the Queen” would be a more appropriate phrase.
Late autumn is the time when a hornet queen is forced to keep a stiff upper mandible, so to speak. By the time the first killing frosts hit, the entire colony will be dead. There may be 500 individuals in a typical “hive” by late summer and they nearly all perish with the autumn leaves. This includes the old queen as well. Before the old gal kicks the bucket, however, new potential queens are produced from her generous supply of eggs. These virgin queens do not remain chaste for long. They are quickly mated and thus prepared for the next crucial stage in their lives. The newly minted, and fertilized, royalty are the only colony members that will survive winter.
At this point in the discussion I should interject a few crucial points for the sake of accuracy. First of all, the name of the Bald-faced Hornet is a bald-faced lie of sorts. These large black wasps are endowed with ivory white markings including a full white facial mark – so the bald-faced part of the name is true enough (you might remember from earlier blogs that the term “bald” means white). But, because these hornets are not true hornets there is more than a bit of falsehood in the name.
Technically they are members of the Yellowjacket clan and are designated as “aerial yellowjackets.” This latter term may seem perplexing at first given the fact that all yellowjackets are aerial (all fly directly into your face when you are eating outside in the fall, for instance). The term is more specific than that. Bald-faced liars…er, wasps… built large paper nests during the warm season, as do all yellowjackets, but they build their structures in exposed aerial situations suspended from tree limbs. Other ‘jackets create their paper nests in underground or between-wall locations. In other words, if you can actually see a roundish gray paper wasp nest then it is a Bald-faced edifice.
Bald-faced yellowjacke…er, Hornets build their reverse teardrop shaped nests out of a unique form of wasp paper. Wood pulp is chewed, mixed with saliva, and applied in semi-circular patches. The interior of the nest is hollow and contains suspended combs in which the young are reared. The new queen starts the thing in the spring and the later generations finish it. At peak activity in mid-summer the walls are multi-layered affairs that can be over two inches thick.
Ignorant folk have long maintained that a thick-walled hornet nest is a sure sign of a bad winter. Sure as toot’n, they’d say. The idea being that the critters inherently know that a big winter is coming and can prepare themselves a “right nice cozy little home” in which they can brave the arctic blasts. Of course, in light of the fact that all the little critters are dead before winter even arrives, this is a tale that needs to die. There’s nobody home in a winter wasp nest except for a few homesteading flies or other small hibernating insects. The old nests fall apart over the course of the winter (see below), so they are not good winter shelters period.. (Note the use of the extra period in the previous sentence to emphasize the word preceding it).
Even the wintering queens do not overwinter in their old nest. They seek protected places under bark, and inside hollow trees where they enter into a state of hibernation called “diapause” (a condition completely un-related to menopause, by the way). I spotted one of these potential ice queens clinging to the side of my house during one of our recent chilly days. Her wings were neatly folded into a position reminiscent of the pose she will assume when passing the long cold season. She moved away from the spot when the next day crept into the upper 50’s.
Although I do not know where she ended up, we can be assured that if she successfully passes the winter with her precious cargo intact she will begin the cycle anew from young non-hornet queen to old non-hornet queen. “Short live the queen.”