Tuesday, 4 January 2011

European Hornets in a Cherry Tree Nest

In late summer, our garden is a feasting place for birds and insects. The ripening fruit attracts butterflies, fruit flies and wasps that suck the sweet juices from apples, pears and the wild elderberries and brambles. It was small wonder that a colony of European Hornet wasps decided to nest in the hollow branch of the old cherry tree beside the pond.

These photographs show the intricate and beautiful nest that they made. A better camera than mine would be needed for detailed photos of the insects themselves, but there are good images of the European Hornet, Vespa crabro, if you search online.

The European Hornet is the largest of the Vespidea, or wasp family, that nests in Britain. The individuals can be around three cm long and they have brown and yellow stripes, instead of the black and yellow stripes of the smaller and more aggressive Common Wasp.

Theses hornets make their nests by fashioning them out of paper, which they make from chewed wood. They prefer to nest in hollow trees or in old chimneys. By choosing the hole at the base of a partially rotten branch of the cherry tree, they would have found shelter and a ready supply of soft and rotting wood. The nest faced north, away from the prevailing south westerly winds that can whip across the fields, and away harsh rays of a hot, mid summer sun.

We watched from a respectful distance as the hornets built their nest. They seemed to ignore our presence, so we decided to tolerate theirs.

Underneath the cherry tree is one of our raised beds for growing vegetables. If we gardened quietly, or if I walked past silently with a wheelbarrow full of hay for the animals, the wasps would carry on about their business.

The finished nest was a fine and delicate structure. We would watch the hornet workers flying in and out through the bottom of the nest, taking in food for the larvae inside.

Summer came to an end. The hornets grew slow and dozy as temperatures fell. With the first frosts, the colony died and the nest began to fall apart and rot away. Somewhere, a hornet queen will be hibernating, but all her workers would have died before the snows arrived.

As the nest disintegrated, distinct layers of nest cells could be seen, like the storeys in a tall building. Ants, flies and blue tits picked away at the nest and wet weather seemed to melt its structure away.

Exposed to the air, the beautiful papery hexagons inside.

Some hexagons still had traces of the lining in which young larvae would have grown

In the worst weather, the remnants of the nest were covered by icy snow. After the thaw, nothing remains but a deeper, darker hole in the cherry tree, just underneath a lower branch. Now we are wondering if the branch will survive another spring, or if the hornet queen will return to begin another colony next summer.


WOL said...

Did all of your intended text post?

Dartford Warbler said...

No it didn`t WOL. Thank you for letting me know.
Something odd happened and part of the text disappeared when I posted it. Maybe a "saving" problem ? I have hopefully finished things off properly now!

Rowan said...

What a fascinating post, the photographs of the hornets' nest are so interesting, I've never seen inside one before. I hope the queen is tucked away somewhere warm and sheltered and will reappear in the spring.

WOL said...

An interesting lesson in recycling. It fascinates me how such complex behavior can come out of something with a brain as small and simple as an insect or spider.

crafty cat corner said...

Thanks for such an interesting blog. I have noticed one of these structures on a tree near us and wondered what it was.
Isn't nature so wonderful, I am constantly in awe of it all and never tire of it.
A peaceful and healthy new year to you.

Morning's Minion said...

I have never seen such a nest--"fearfully and wonderfully made." The hornets and wasps here [I don't know the finer distinctions] seem to make two types of nests--small, rough honeycomb daubs against a house wall or under the porch roof--and the beautifully made multi-layered structures that hang from a low tree branch or bush. A few times over the years I've discovered one of the latter after the leaves are gone in autumn and brought it inside to admire.
The windfall pears were a great attraction for wasps this fall--gathering them for Pebbles I had to watch what I picked up.

rachel said...

So beautiful!