The April Artifact of the Month at the Western Illinois Museum is a large hornet nest removed from a mockernut hickory tree in Tennessee, Illinois.
An exceptional example of native natural engineering, this nest was once home to about 700 white bald-faced hornets, an insect native to McDonough County and most of the United States. They are also called white-faced or white-tailed hornets.
The nest came from a tree at the residence of Alice and Lloyd Mills. Avid nature-lovers, the Mills often enjoyed seeing deer and other wildlife at their country home in Tennessee. Alice vividly recalls the day about ten years ago, when she and her husband Lloyd noticed the hornet nest hanging high up in a tree in their backyard. From the start they appreciated it as a marvel of nature.
Not wanting the nest to be destroyed at the end of the season, the Mills decided to remove it and preserve it. Waiting until the nest was less active, Lloyd climbed a ladder and chopped off the limb the nest was attached to. They then placed the nest in their freezer to terminate any further growth of eggs. After that, they put the nest on display, hanging it in the great room of their home. Alice recalled that she “thought it was beautiful,” and they had many years of enjoying their unique decoration.
Recently, the Mills moved from their country home and had to pare down their possessions. Not wanting to get rid of the nest, the Mills donated it to the museum for prosterity. As Alice Mills noted, by donating it to the museum, “we hope that others might see the nest and enjoy it”. The Mills are now residents in Macomb.
In the shape of a football, this type of hornet nest is common in McDonough County. Bald-faced hornet nests are usually found in trees at the edge of a forest, in gardens and in parks. The hornets themselves are distinctive and easy to recognize because their bodies are white and black. An adult hornet is about ¾ inch long. They like to live among the woods.
It is not unusual that this nest was found in a Mockernut hickory tree. Mockernut hickory trees are especially good nesting trees for insects as well as birds, as their thick leafy foliage provides good cover.
Every spring, one female, who will become the queen, begins a nest. To start the nest, the hornet queen selects a spot in the tree and lays a few eggs which eventually grow into adult female hornets. These adult hornets are the workers and they start building the nest larger and larger, as the queen lays more and more eggs. The entire nest population is made up of the queen and female workers.
The hornets make the nest by chewing wood and mixing it with their saliva. The secretion is exuded and creates layers upon layers of a papery material that makes up the nest. Usually the nest is gray, brown, and tan; resembling marbled paper, the coloring of the nest depends on the type of wood the hornets chew. Sometimes the walls of the nest can reach two inches thick.
Throughout the summer the hornet nest grows bigger and bigger. The average size of a nest is usually basketball size. Sometimes leaves, branches and twigs become interwoven into the structure of the nest. The additional material gives the nest stability and strength. Located at the bottom of the nest is the entrance hole.
At the end of summer, the queen lays both male and female eggs. These insects mate and then almost all the hornets in the nest die (including the queen) except the females who have mated. The mated females will burrow into old tree stumps and hibernate through the winter and the next spring will start their own nests.
The old nests are abandoned. Hornets will not reuse an old nest the following spring. When the leaves begin to fall, it is not uncommon to see hornet nests that previously had been obscured by foliage. Exposed, unprotected nests will begin to disintegrate after the hornets die and are usually eventually completely destroyed by weather and wildlife.
The scientific name of the Bald-faced Hornet is Dolichovespula maculata. It is not a true hornet: hornets belong to the genus Vespa. Bald-faced hornets are actually wasps in the genus Vespula, many of which are commonly called yellowjackets. The Family Vespidae includes hornets, paper wasps, potter wasps, and yellowjackets.
White bald-faced hornets serve a useful purpose to humans. They eat flies. There is no need to destroy a nest and it is advisable, if possible, to leave the nest alone.
Word of caution: White-faced bald hornets are extremely protective of the nest. They are only aggressive when they are threatened. They will sting you if they feel the nest is at risk. This type of hornet has a straight stinger so can sting repeatedly. The sting is painful. Use extreme caution and avoid the nest if possible. Wait until early winter and determine that there is no activity around the nest before trying to collect a nest.
As the Mills family did in Tennessee, it is possible to collect a hornet nest and hang it in your home as a unique decoration. A nest can last indefinitely if it is suspended in a dry location where it will not be damaged by handling.
From an essay by Heather Munro