Yellowjackets (Vespula spp. and Dolichovespula spp.), Baldfaced Hornets (D. maculata), and Paper Wasps (Polistes spp.) all belong to the wasp family, Vespidae. So, entomologists collectively refer to them as “wasps.”
The exceptional abundance and relatively early appearance of the wasps noted above was reported in a BYGL Alert titled, “An Early Abundance of Stingers,” which was posted on August 2, 2023. You can access the Alert by clicking on this hotlink: https://bygl.osu.edu/node/2211
Wasps share many traits including using their powerful mandibles to scrap weathered wood and then mix the fibers with saliva to extrude a paper mache-like material used to build their nests. Wasp scrapings on weathered wood can remain evident for years.
As with all wasps, baldfaced hornet nests are only used for one season. New baldfaced hornet queens and males (drones) develop in late summer to early fall. Once the new queens are mated, they fly to their overwintering sites leaving behind workers that will eventually meet a freezing fate. The new queens spend the winter in protected locations such as beneath bark, inside hollow trees, etc.
As spring temperatures warm, the overwintered queens seek suitable sites for nest construction. Baldfaced hornets never rebuild previous nests; each queen produces a new nest in a new location.
Baldfaced hornet nests consist of 2 – 4 tiers of paper comb surrounded by a paper envelope. The combs look like larger versions of the nests constructed by paper wasps. Indeed, the exposed paper wasp combs provide insight into the structural plan for the brood-abodes inside a baldfaced hornet nest.
The abundance of baldfaced hornets this past season across Ohio was made evident by an unusual number of nests that were revealed suspended from the branches of trees or shrubs once leaves dropped. Coupled with an extended “wasp season,” some nests are huge.
Nest Collection Safety Tips
A baldfaced hornet nest can make a great conversation piece when displayed in a home or office. They are commonly featured in nature centers. Multihued nests are particularly attractive and invite conversations regarding the source of the wood fibers.
With the large number of baldfaced hornet nests that developed this past season in Ohio, they may become tempting targets for novice collectors who have no experience with safely gathering and displaying a nest. It’s important to keep in mind that the nests may still house a security detail.
As winter descends, the hapless baldfaced hornets gather together in tight clusters between the comb tiers with the outer paper envelop coupled with the largely empty paper chambers in the combs acting as insulation. Although they eventually run out of gas and freeze to death, it’s amazing how long they can last into the winter.
Of course, the true amazement may occur when a nest is brought into a warm structure before all of the baldfaced hornets have expired. Baldfaced hornets do not go gentle into that good night. We may not have experienced a sufficient accumulation of freezing temperatures to kill all of the baldfaced hornets still standing guard inside their nests, particularly in southern Ohio.
For example, according to the National Weather Service, the Cincinnati region only had one 24-hour period in October with the minimum temperature dipping to 29F. There were seven 24-hour periods in November with minimum temperatures dropping below freezing; however, only two periods with deeply dipping temperatures (29F, 28F, 31F, 29F, 29F, 17F, 15F). Thus far, four 24-hour periods in December had minimum temperatures that dipped below freezing (31F, 29F, 30F, 28F). There has been only one 24-hour period in October, November, and December with a maximum temperature at freezing (November 28, 32F).
Waiting until spring to collect a baldfaced hornet nest would eliminate any risk; however, nests commonly become tattered or even destroyed through the winter. It’s rare to find a pristine baldfaced hornet nest in the spring.
On the other hand, collecting a baldfaced nest too early can lead to disastrous consequences if the nest is warmed. A recently collected baldfaced hornet nest may not be a good Christmas gift!
Nests collected now should be held in an unheated outbuilding, garage, or even on a covered porch, until at least mid-to-late January. This will ensure that the hornets are dead and will protect the nest from water which will degrade the paper. Moisture is the enemy of a nice baldfaced hornet nest. On a side note, holding the nest outdoors will also allow the adults as well as any remaining larvae to dehydrate so they don’t stink when the nest is brought indoors for display.
Finally, it’s a common misconception that baldfaced hornet nests need to be treated with some type of preservative such as varnish, hairspray, or spray fixatives used to stabilize drawings in pastels, charcoal, or chalk. This is not true. Some products, particularly varnish, may affect the natural colors of the nest either immediately, or over time. As long as the nest is kept dry and solidly suspended in a location that’s free from handling or shaking, it can be appreciated almost indefinitely.