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A love story

There is a lot to fear -- and admire -- about hornets

Close-up of baldfaced hornet. It’s hard to love a baldfaced hornet. Hornets are scary and their stings cause great pain. But the more you get to know a hornet, the more you can’t help but to admire them.

The life of a worker hornet is selfless. It is full of hard work. The life of a worker hornet is full of love and loyalty to her mother.

The hornet nest you see today began in May when a queen awoke from her winter slumber. Perhaps she survived inside a tree cavity.

Already impregnated last fall, she immediately got to work this spring in making chambers for the eggs. She used plant fibers and spit as her building materials.

The queen laid her first eggs in these chambers. The hornets that hatched from these eggs were sterile females who will spend their entire lives serving their mother.

The female workers work tirelessly all summer to build the nest. The nest itself is an engineering marvel. A sturdy framework of hexagonal combs supports the structure (similar to a beehive). The workers carve tiny vents to keep the nest cool in summer and yet shed rain away.Close-up of baldfaced hornet nest. The silver and brown rings on the outside of the nest are as ornate as the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Russia (see bottom photo).

The workers gather nectar and hunt down other insects to feed the baby hornets. In doing so, hornets pollinate our crops and kill insects that harm our gardens. In fact, baldfaced hornets may be considered as beneficial insects.

The hornets will leave you alone unless you threaten their home. Stay at least 10 feet away or you risk facing a ferocious foe. This ferocity causes us to hate hornets, but how can you hate a daughter for protecting her mother and sisters?

And imagine the courage it takes! A hornet attacking a person is akin to you attacking a foe the size of a 50-story skyscraper! Your odds of success are not very good, but sometimes love has no limits.

By this time of year, a hornet nest may have 300 workers inside. The queen has already made plans for next year. She created males and new queens. These hornets have left the nest and the new queens are seeking a shelter to survive winter.

Now the nights are getting colder. The sterile female hornets and their elderly mother stay in the nest together as a family. The workers will not leave their mother. They have lived their entire lives together.

They shiver at night together. They suffer together. They will stay together while the killing frost strikes. The hornets will perish as a family whose love never ends.

Fear the hornet—but admire it too.

Source: S. Jacobs. 2010. Baldfaced hornets. Pennysylvania State University: State College.

Written by Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University. Published in NDSU Yard & Garden Report, September 15, 2014. Photos were made available under Creative Commons licenses specified by the photographers: Patrick Spurlock and arbyreed.

Filed under: Insects, Tom Kalb, Frost
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