Football-shaped blob a true wonder

All summer, it hung precariously in the locust tree.

Every time I went out on the patio, I cautiously peered skyward, looking for the football-shaped blob partially hidden by the leaves.

About 30 feet up into the tree, they made their home.

The bald-faced hornets chose a spot located directly above our back step for their colony of thousands.

During every barbecue, every back-step dog brushing session, every craft project on the patio table, I checked on that nest conspicuously (and inconveniently) perched directly over our back patio. It loomed above, swaying with the branch it clung to, and a steady stream of shiny black hornets buzzed in and out of the entrance all day long. We feared the nest would come careening off the tree at some point, exploding like a furious piñata releasing stinging wasps while we were flipping hamburgers on the grill. But it never happened.

The hornets were mesmerizing to watch. And to be honest, they were good neighbors and didn’t cause any trouble. While I warily eyed the ever-growing nest, it never budged.

By the time the summer came to a close, the hornets’ abode had tripled in size and the insects had run out of room for additions, hampered by a branch that squeezed the nest.

At one point, the neighbors gawked at the nest and inquired about it. They were having some problems with wasps at their house, but I assured them that our hornets were not the culprits hanging out when they grilled, or clogging their hummingbird feeders. These hornets were distinctive ­— they were about twice as big as the yellowjackets — and they were black and white. The bald-faced hornets weren’t as leggy as the yellowjackets, and didn’t buzz around sugar or grease.

It turned out that the neighbors’ nuisance yellowjackets had built a nest in some railroad ties surrounding their flowerbed, and definitely were not coming from the scary-looking nest in our tree.

The bald-faced hornets that had taken up residence in our backyard were actually preying on other insects, something many kinds of wasps do. I didn’t mind having them around because they were keeping other bugs in check and had a beneficial purpose.

Although the bald-faced hornets’ home looked threatening, it never caused a problem, and we were never stung by any of them and they moved on at the end of the summer. If their queen survives the winter, she’ll start a new colony next year, all by herself.

The nest itself is an architectural wonder, if you think about it. The fact that wasps can make paper out of chewed-up wood, spreading it into delicate but strong layers that protect them from the elements and shelter their young is amazing.

Now the wind has battered the nest and chunks of the hornets’ hard work rain down on the patio with each gust, like flakes of some gray-papered baklava, and bits of wasp wallpaper peppering the yard.

I hope they come back next year. But maybe they’ll get the memo and relocate to a more convenient, less conspicuous spot.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener and journalist who hosts “Diggin’ the Garden,” the second Wednesday of every month at noon on KAFM 88.1. Email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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