Baldfaced hornet a bully of a bug

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mother Nature has her share of nasties, but among the nastiest of the bunch is the baldfaced hornet. How mean are they? One of the species they attack and eat is the yellow-jacket wasp—a tough customer in its own right.

A couple of things to keep in mind about the hornet: Unlike a bee that loses its stinger the first time it uses it, the hornet’s stinger does not have a barb and therefore can be used repeatedly. They can march up your arm stitching you like a sewing machine as they inject their venom with each poke of the needle.

Another trait is that the hornet has no sense of humor. Anything that threatens its gray, basketball-sized nest is going to be attacked by the whole gang, which can number 400 or more miniature dive-bombers.

Most rational folks will steer clear of a nest, but sometimes they accidently blunder into one. My neighbor was mowing some trails on his land recently and narrowly missed running over a nest that was on the ground and completely hidden in the tall grass. Running the chopper over it would have resulted in some major stinging, and since he is allergic to hornet venom, the encounter would probably have sent him to the emergency room.

One of the scary things about a run-in with a hornet is that smacking it marks you as a target for the rest of the colony. When killed, the hornet releases an attack pheromone which rings the alarm bells back at headquarters and causes all of its hivemates to go into attack mode. Anything that has come in contact with the pheromone, such as clothing or skin, becomes a beacon to hone in on.

The hornet usually builds its nest high up in a tree, but this is the second one we’ve seen this season that was close to the ground. The first one was elevated only a couple of feet, but was in the open where it could be spotted easily. This one was virtually sitting on the ground—something I’ve never seen before.

The scary thing about it is that before the trail was cut the tall grass made it invisible until you were on top of it. It’s in an area where I walked my dogs this summer and I hate to think what would have happened if one of them had seen the nest and gone over to investigate. The thought of a panicked Labrador running to its master for aid while bedeviled by a swarm of attacking hornets is not a pleasant one.

In spite of their bad tempers, baldfaced hornets are considered to be beneficial since they prey on a number of insect pests—including the afore-mentioned yellowjacket, which is a close relative. Farmers like to see them build nests near barns since a colony of hornets can help keep the fly population in check. They also feed on nectar and will help pollinate flowers as they search for it.

Like poison ivy, when you see one of those papier-mache-like footballs hanging down from a branch, just avoid it. If the nest is near your house but at least ten feet high, you’re probably in no danger of an attack and can ignore it. If not, you might want to call a professional exterminator to remove it. This is definitely not a job for amateurs unless you’ve researched the subject thoroughly and taken all of the precautions necessary.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net

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