Bald-faced Hornets

bald-faced hornet

Bald-faced Hornet

Bald-faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) have a mostly undeserved reputation for being vicious, pests and safety hazards. They are actually fairly beneficial insects with a role in the environment. Sometimes called White-faced Hornets, Bull Wasps, or Blackjackets, these wasps are actually not true hornets, but large aerial yellowjackets.

They mostly go unnoticed and cause no issues until suddenly someone becomes aware of their large paper nests and get scared. Now these insects, which have been living in that same place throughout the earlier part of the spring and summer causing no trouble, are seen as a danger and something to be feared and destroyed.

Most of the time, Bald-faced Hornets are actually beneficial. They hunt other insect prey (including some pests) and bring them to feed themselves and their developing young. They predate on quite a few insects, considering that a nest can hold 400-700 workers by the end of the season. Interestingly, one of their favorite food items are their smaller cousins, Yellowjacket wasps. They also serve as minor pollinators (particularly late in the season when they visit more flowers to obtain nectar and hunt less since they have less young to feed).

b faced hornets nest

The typical paper nest 

A typical nest starts when an overwintering queen wakes up in the spring and finds a likely location to start her nest. Though most of the time they choose a location in a tree from 2′-60′ high, they sometimes will use the eaves of a building or other structure that might give some cover from the elements. The queen chews some wood fiber, mixes it with saliva, and then shapes it into the first hexagonal paper cells that will house her eggs. Each egg takes about 6 days to produce young. She feeds and cares for these, who then become the first workers and will raise, provide, and protect the young until the end of the season. A new paper nest is quite small and has the opening at the very bottom.

>> Read more at the Capital Naturalist blog.

National Pollinator Week

Pollinator

A sweat bee and orange-spotted mint moth  feeding on a Coneflower

Happy National Pollinator Week! To help celebrate, I hope to post about a pollinator each day for us to learn about and appreciate. But first a bit on pollinators in general. There are over 200,000 species of pollinators worldwide. These include such animals as bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, and hummingbirds. We owe them much, as it is often said that one out of every three bites of food we enjoy are due to the direct actions of an animal pollinator. In fact, three-quarters of all plants regardless depend on animal pollinators in order to reproduce.

When thinking about planting things to benefit our pollinators who benefit us so often, it is most important to consider the use of native plants. Some studies show that native plants are four or more times more attractive to native pollinators than exotic plants. This, of course, makes perfect sense since these plants and animals evolved together, sometimes to the point that one cannot exist without the other.

Finally, something to consider is the multiple uses you get with native plants. Many exotic plants may have a pretty flower that may (or may not) provide nectar for a short time each year while blooming, but it otherwise provides little habitat for pollinators or other native wildlife. Take the Chinese Aster (Callistephus) for example. It is a pretty flower, comes in many color forms and is widely planted (and escaped and naturalized into some areas). The blooms on some varieties provide some nectar and pollen to a few pollinators for a short bloom time each year. But only two species of caterpillars have been recorded as feeding on it. It is for the most part and for most of its plant life a barren habitat for wildlife, taking the place of what might have been a much more beneficial native plant.

>> Read more at the Capital Naturalist blog.

In honor of National Pollinator Week: Bees

beeIn honor of National Pollinator Week (June 15-21, 2015), it makes sense to honor the best of the animal pollinators: bees. Most people are aware of how important bees are for pollination of plants, including some 70% of our crops. What they do not often realize is that we have some 400 or so native bee species in our region, most of which are not at all like the introduced European Honeybee. Honeybees were were brought to the USA in to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1627. They are of course extremely valuable for the way we conduct our agriculture and to give us honey, but we need to realize that wild plants were doing fine (maybe even better) before these generalist bees arrived. Our native plants likely would do fine whether honeybees were here or not today. While most people think that all bees are like the social European honeybees (living in hives with a queen, making honey, and only capable of stinging once), they really are the exception and different from the other 4,000 or so other species we have in North America. There are also about 40 species of non native bees in the US, including the European Honeybee.

The vast majority of our native bees for example are actually solitary, with a single female bee taking care of her young, collecting nectar and pollen for them all by herself. She is extremely non-aggressive and many are incapable of even having their stingers pierce our skin. Should that happen however, multiple defensive stings are possible. The reason solitary bees do not sting however is that they would prefer to fly away and not defend their nest, for if the solitary mother dies, her nest and eggs are dead anyways. Better to run away and start over. Honeybees live for the hive, the workers themselves really not even reproducing, so all they care about is defending their nest, even if they lose their lives stinging in the process.

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