Before I became a beekeeper I never paid too much attention to wasps and hornets. But then I saw the body of bald-faced hornet hanging out of one of my beehives. The honeybees had attacked and decapitated her and were in the process of pushing the body out of the hive. I did some research and learned about hornets’ unique life cycles and behaviors. Even though they have spelled disaster for more than one of my beehives, they quickly gained my respect. For one thing, they build amazingly beautiful homes. You have probably seen them hanging in the woods, or near your home though I hope not!
Bald-faced hornets (aka: bull wasps or blackjackets) are a species that is prolific in my area and across North America. They aren’t hornets at all, but a type of large wasp. They are big, black in color, and have dabs of white on their abdomens and heads. They build large, paper nests typically high in trees or on structures. Although these nests resemble the “beehives” from Winnie The Pooh, you won’t find any honey in them. While they do collect some sugars from fruit and flowers for feeding their babies, they are mainly carnivorous and can be found eating meat or other insects. Their queen emerges from her burrow underground in the spring and begins constructing a small nest and laying eggs to build up her colony. Soon her offspring will help her build the nest, and she will retreat to lay eggs for the entirety of the season. In the fall, the queen will burrow underground or under a log, leaving the rest of her brood to freeze and die. The queen will start constructing a new nest in the spring; this leaves the previous nest vacant and available for collecting.
The best time to collect a nest is after several hard frosts — this ensures that the inhabitants are dead and eliminates the possibility of getting stung. In most instances, hornets nests are located very high in trees. Please take extreme care and caution when collecting a hornets nest. You will most likely need to cut some branches around the nest to get it out. We like to leave the sticks and branches intact at a length because we like the way it looks.
After you have successfully collected your hornets nest, it’s a good idea to place it in the freezer for a week or two, especially if you are concerned about remaining, living hornets. Your nest may have a slightly foul scent to it; this is the result of remaining larvae and eggs rotting. If this is the case, leave it sitting in the garage or barn for a couple of weeks. We have done this a few times and have never experienced this … however, we do have very cold winters in our area.
The paper nest will last indefinitely in its natural state, though you can spray it with a coat or two of shellac if you wish. Hang in the desired location with clear fishing line, and you will have a conversation starter for years to come!