June 1, 2013

Allen Afield: Distance, respect the best approach with hornets


During my childhood, my father or an older cousin, Lawrence French, occasionally took me into the woods to help cut down trees to work up for firewood or logs, mostly the latter with Lawrence.

My phrase "to help" offers hyperbole, too. Mostly they dragged me along for company, and in that age before cell phones, they needed a runner for aid in case of an injury far from roads, common with wood-cutters.

Vivid images and smells of freshly cut pine or oak fill those memories, and though the two have passed away, pine or oak odors rekindle thoughts of days with them. While bicycling lately, I've passed workers cutting roadside brush with the inevitable fragrances, particularly pine, which started me thinking about the topic.

While wood-cutting on June days back then, a nature phenomenon caught my eye. Whenever my father or Lawrence toppled an oak, those huge, bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate) showed up sooner than later and landed on the stump, where they crawled on the light-tan surface.

The long stinger on these large members of the Vespidae family draw an observer's eyes because they are so lethal looking.

I once told my father that if one stung us on our wrist or shin bone, the stinger might reach the bone -- an exaggeration but a slight one.

I wondered what attracted the hornets to freshly cut stumps. They looked as if they were collecting sap, but later a research work on this insect informed me that females chew wood to make gray pulp for the pendant, paper-like, gray nest that they build on the bottom of hardwood limb.

Chainsaws leave a very light sawdust layer on the stump, which made me wonder if females gathered wood particles for paper making. If that were true, though, why do they ignore sawdust on the ground by the scarf?

In May, the nest dangling from a hardwood limb resembles a 2-inch, standing mushroom, but by June it reaches the size and shape of a golf ball, both stages difficult to spot in foliage. By September the nest grows to the size of a basketball and has the shape of a fat, upside-down pear. The inside of the paper nest often contains three vertical combs.

We often notice bald-faced nests in September and think they have appeared overnight, which happened to me then, a young man living in a log cabin with my ex-wife and oldest daughter, a 2-year-old then.

Bald-faced hornets had built a nest that dangled from a maple limb 20 yards from the kitchen door. The structure caught my eye in September, and I marveled at how the fragile-looking paper withstood heavy rainstorms.

When we headed into our home, these hornets became a problem by buzzing us frequently. In those days I could be as numb as a pounded thumb, evidenced by my stupid idea to solve the problem.

One of my hunting arrows had a head for shooting game birds, a large contraption that looked like an 8- to 10-inch cloverleaf made of heavy wire. This would destroy the hornet nest and get rid of the hornets. Yup, from a logical and environmental standpoint, it was a very foolish idea.

My shot at the nest came from my deck by the kitchen door, offering immediate safety from angry hornets. The arrow knocked the nest down all right, and I scooted into the house before the swarm caught me. However, for days angry hornets were buzzing around my yard in a pucker at anything that moved, forcing us to use another door. We should have followed the alternate-door plan first and left the nest alone.

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