Not Just an Old Saying! “Don’t Stir Up A Hornet’s Nest!”
Have you ever heard this expression? It is often said to discourage people from entering an argument or engaging with an angry person. However, there is some substance behind the origin of the saying. How do I know? Personal experience! On two occasions I have accidentally stirred up a hornet’s nest.
I remember several years ago in Idaho, walking down the edge of the creek while fishing. My pole tip was out in front of me and I was watching the stream looking for a likely place to catch a nice big trout. Next thing I know I hear a lot of buzzing. I discovered that the tip of my pole had run into the large hornet’s nest that was clinging to some branches near the shore. I took off trying to avoid the mad hornets out to get me for disturbing their nest. The only safe place I found was the creek where I submerged for a bit hoping the hornets would leave. After holding my breath for as long as I could in the cold water I emerged and the angry creatures had returned to try to repair what was left of their nest. Needless to say, I am much more careful when walking along steams these days.
Too Close For Comfort!
I recently had an even more dangerous encounter here in Tennessee. Our Community Group from church was helping a person in our neighborhood who has cancer. We were working to clean up and care for his yard around the house. While cutting back the brush way back near the house I accidentally struck another hornet’s nest. These guys were even bigger than the Baldfaced Hornets I had encounter in Idaho. These were the largest hornets in Northern America, the European Hornets, AKA “Giant Hornets” They got to me before I noticed their attack. I was stung a couple times right through my gloves and on my arm. Painful! The pain lasted for the rest of the day and the next day the spots where they had stung me itched terribly. Eventually the pain went away.
After doing some research on these hornets I discovered some interesting things about their behaviors and life history.
They Are Not Called European For Nothing!
These Hornets came from Europe via New York. They were first discovered in New York in 1840. Since then they have spread to all the states East of the Mississippi River and have even extended their range to parts of South America. Their nickname “Giant Hornet” has to do with their size. Many are as large as 1 1/2 ” (2-3.5 cm). Interestingly they are not as aggressive as some of our native wasps and hornets….unless……..you threaten their nests! When they are in close proximity to homes they can pose some danger. If you find them near your house it is probably wise to call a professional to deal with them since they know how to manage them without getting harmed.
Brown and Yellow and Red
As you might be able to see from the pictures these hornets have more of a yellow and brown striped look. Sometimes their heads are more reddish than brown. If you are familiar with the Bald Faced Hornets, they are usually more white and black banded. Our native Yellow Jackets have yellow and black stripes.
They Eat Big Things!
These hornets like to eat larger insects and spiders. One of their favorites is grasshoppers. They also prey on dragonflies, mantises and robberflies. They also like to eat other types of meat….Spiders.
A Neat Trick:
Scientists who have observed them for many years have discovered that these hornets like to specialize in preying on the large orb weavers (like the Zipper Spider in my earlier blog). Here is what they have observed them doing. They sometimes intentionally run into a spider’s web and pretend to be trapped. They actually have cut through the webbing that usually holds the spider’s prey until it is bitten and then eaten. As soon as the spider comes out to enjoy his freshly trapped meal the tables are turned and the hornet strikes the spider and paralyzes it and then carries it off to the nest to be eaten.
What’s With the Rings on the Trees?
Another interesting behavior of these hornets is what they do to trees near their nests. They go out and chew the bark and mix it with their saliva to build the paper for their nests. They have a habit of returning to the same tree over and over again creating rings around the trees where they have stripped off the bark. The paper they make is very good at protecting the nest from water and cold and heat. If they build their nests outside they also build a wall around the nest to protect the cells inside. Since they often build their nests inside of hollow trees and in the walls of buildings they do not always have these external protective walls, however. You might see the paper around the openings where the insects enter and exit the nest. I wonder how they learned to make this paper. I think it was a talent given them by God.
Watch Out for the Females!
Interestingly it’s the females that sting you. The males do not. So…….how do you tell the difference? Well, if you really want to know, there are several differences. The males are usually smaller in size than the females. The males have seven segments on their abdomens while the females only have 6. I doubt that you could see these differences until it was too late to avoid the stings however, unless they were already dead. Apparently their antennae also have a different number of segments but you would need a magnifying glass to see this characteristic. Best to observe them from a distance and photographs!
Often Harmful to Honey Bees
One of the draw backs of these hornets is their appetite for the common honeybee. Did you know the honeybees also came from Europe so there seems to be some history here. If you are raising honeybees you probably don’t want these guys around. Even though they eat many harmful insects that might threaten your garden they also eat many beneficial ones.
Best To Leave Creatures Where You Find Them!
When God created the many different creatures He put them in areas where they were helpful. It seems man has often moved creatures thinking they might benefit them in places other than their native habitats. This almost always creates a problem as time goes on. Many times the non-native species compete with the native ones, sometimes even leading to their extinction. Non-native species often are brought into the country accidentally attached to food products and plants. This is why there are many people employed to check items brought across state and country borders. We need to be careful to check our items carefully and help prevent unwanted pests. Though they are not so great out of place they were created for their native environment and serve a purpose there in controlling the populations of harmful insects. They are interesting creatures to examine up close…when they are dead! I suggest you look at pictures of them online and read all about them in the many articles you can find written by experts who have studied them for some time.
Here Are Some Things to Research:
Find out how the females over-winter to start new nests in the Spring.
What are Pheromones and how are they used by these creatures?
How painful are their stings compared to other bees and wasps?
Do hornets die when they sting you like honeybees?
A Special Thank You:
I would like to thank my friend Heather Davis for capturing this specimen for me. She lives near the house where I was stung earlier this year. She also is a blogger with interesting posts.