Bald-Faced Hornet. Photos by Kathy Kinsey
By Kathy Kinsey
What’s black and white and meaner than a Yellow Jacket? The Bald-Faced Hornet! Dolichovespula maculate, belonging to the wasp family, is a North America problem. It has several nicknames such as Bull Wasp but in snapping its photo for this article, I found it to be rather docile. But that was today and tomorrow it may have a whole different attitude about things. The term mad as a hornet had to come from someplace! As with Yellow Jackets, queens are the only members of the colony able to survive the winter. In April or May, each queen will emerge from a protected site such as a hollow log or under some leaves. She will select a suitable location to construct a small nest and will then lay her eggs. Once hatched, she will feed and tend to this first group of larvae. These will then become the workers. Their job is to expand the nest which is one of the largest hanging nests built by any of the wasps. These workers feed on nectar, tree sap and fruit pulp – apples and pears and I have seen them on grapes. Seems anything sweet gets their attention. Even a hummingbird feeder! The Bald-Faced Hornet builds a spectacular nest. If you have never seen one, don’t go looking for one. As they have a smooth stinger, they are able to sting repeatedly, without mercy, to defend the nest. Though there are fewer Bald-Faced Hornets occupying a nest in comparison to the Yellow Jacket nest, it still should only be observed from the safety of a car. The Bald-Faced measures in at ¾ of an inch in length, is considered more aggressive than the Yellow Jacket and with a nickname like Bull Wasp, why bother messing with it! They have a painful sting lasting for hours. But should you encounter this problem, Benadryl and ice will get you through it. And remain calm if you can as frantic movements will cause the venom to move quickly through your system. Contact your physician if you have allergies to wasp stings or 911 for immediate medical assistance. Their nest is made up of chewed wood, vegetable fiber, dead plants, cardboard or newspaper that gets mixed with their saliva. It is then spread around the nest with their mandibles and legs which will then dry into a papery structure. It can be up to 14 inches in diameter and 23 inches in length. That’s huge! Their nests are pear or egg-shaped and are multiple layered hexagonal combs covered in a mottled gray envelope/covering. The nest resembles the Yellow Jacket nest once this outer covering is removed. Nests are often found hanging in trees and shrubs where they go unnoticed until the leaves are shed in the fall, unless they build in an evergreen. Also, nests can be found on eves of buildings, on windows or in attics. This wasp will die as winter approaches except for the fertilized queens. The queens will then hibernate underground or in a protected site such as a hollow log or under leaves until spring as the nest is usually abandoned by winter. These hanging nests will not be reused. The cycle will begin all over in the spring with the emergence of the queens, each looking for a site to build a nest, lay eggs, the workers will hatch and the expansion of a nest begins all over again. But there is order to this nest. There is one queen responsible for laying eggs, an average of 400 workers which are infertile females to maintain the nest and watch the little ones, the drones which lack stingers and are males and then new queens with all the queens being fertile. Quite the colony and they all seem to get along…..maybe there is a lesson here somewhere! The Bald-Faced Hornet is a beneficial wasp as caterpillars, flies and spiders top the menu. One of them eats my plants, the other is annoying and the other one is a great bugger! This wasp is often confused with the European hornet, which is the only true hornet in North America. I am not too sure where the confusion is though. They look nothing alike as Bald-Faced is black and white while the European is brown and yellow. The Bald-Faced does have a terrible behavioral issue though. It has the ability to squirt venom from its stinger into the eyes of any nest intruder causing eyes to water immediately and will also cause temporary blindness. Though they are found in North America, including southern Canada and the Rocky Mountains, they are most common in the southeastern Unites States. For some reason, I do not find them as menacing as a Yellow Jacket. I have only had one nest on the property but it was off the back of the property – a place I seldom visit. I don’t see the attitude that threatens my existence that I have seen with old Yellow. They just seem to be on a mission and I seem to be of no concern to them. It amazed me how long this one stayed on the feeder so I could get just the right photo and I got pretty close to it as I do not have a zoom lens. It just simply must have been on a sugar high! So, how does one get rid of this wasp? Insecticides for wasps/hornets can be used. Make sure you read the label thoroughly before purchasing/using. There is one that shoots out several feet and if you are going to attempt to take them out, make sure you are clothed from head to toe and spray the entrance to the nest with a sufficient amount of insecticide. It is best to do this at night as most of the wasps will be back at the nest, but know that they will defend the nest with all they have. And as the temperature is cooler at night, it will slow them down somewhat. After thoroughly spraying the nest, leave it for a few days to allow the insecticide time to kill all the workers and newly emerging wasps. Unless the nest poses an immediate threat to you, it is best to leave it alone as they will die in the winter. With all the bugs they are eating, they are doing a great service to you, most especially if you garden. Each insect seems to have its own menu of bugs and I sometimes wonder if we take out too many beneficial insects, what will happen to the environment when the non-beneficial insects get out of control? Nature seems to take care of things for us. My goal as a Master Gardener is to inform you on what is out there and how best to protect yourself from being bitten or stung. Just because you do not garden does not protect you from all the stinging insects that inhabit our world. You might want to invest in a hand sprayer for some soapy water! Kathy Kinsey is a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Office. For more information about wasps and hornets, insecticides to control them or maybe gardening in our area, you can visit our website at http://leon.ifas.ufl.edu . You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.