Northland Nature: Hornet nests and other animal signs of last summer are now easy to seeWalking in the drab and leafless woods of AutWin gives us views of many things that we might overlook during the green times earlier. Conifers show their green needles easily in this scene, but so do other green plants appear.
Walking in the drab and leafless woods of AutWin gives us views of many things that we might overlook during the green times earlier. Conifers show their green needles easily in this scene, but so do other green plants appear.
Along any route in the forest now, we’ll find a plethora of green mosses, ferns, clubmosses and a closer look reveals several leafy flowering plants as well. Spring and summer ones such as hepatica, strawberry, pyrola and wintergreen all keep their leaf color in the midst of dead leaves on the forest floor and under the impending snow blanket.
But sights in AutWin go far beyond the plants. While walking here, I find that many animal signs are present as well.
In regard to animal signs, we might think of tracks or droppings of mammals. Though these are frequently found, the list continues.
Here too, we may find buck rubs on small trees, chewed branches showing where a porcupine has dined, and in the wetlands beavers tell us of their activities at gnawing trees or lodges and dam constructions.
Signs of bird residents are quite common in the woods. It is often during the woods walks at this time that I find what is left of the summer nests of sparrows, thrushes and vireos. I’m sure that
I heard their territorial songs throughout the breeding season, but in the rich arboreal foliage, I did not find the nests until now.
Out on those same branches are the clusters of leaves that indicate
the home of squirrels. Openings in the tree trunks continue the story of these bushy-tailed rodents.
Woodpeckers, also making and using excavations, have been here too. Often with these birds, the signs are ones that tell of where they fed.
Most obvious are the deep cuts with large wood chips from the pileated woodpeckers.
I find several of these while walking at this time and once again I’m struck by their large size and strength. They will be with us for the winter, but on a nearby tree trunk are the straight-line feeding holes of sapsuckers, migratory woodpeckers that are long gone.
We tend to forget insects when thinking of animal signs, but I find that they abound too.
Perhaps the easiest to see is not in the forest, but in the meadow. On the stems of many goldenrods are the thick swellings known as goldenrod galls. Made by a small fly laying eggs here last summer, this large bulge of the stalk is not only a sign of the insects, but the actual insect itself is present in its larval stage inside.
Not so with another noteworthy insect sign: the nests of hornets.
Mostly gray and usually of an oval shape, these leafy-woody constructions hang from branches and now, with no leaves, they are easy to see. They range in size from that of a softball to maybe as big as a watermelon. Being this big, the makers — bald-faced or white-faced hornets (not bees) — are able to use it as a place to raise a colony during the warm days of summer.
Though many of these large wasp-like insects lived here, the nest was often shrouded by the foliage of the season. Most of these hornet nests are from 5- to 20 feet high in trees and shrubs, but I have seen a few nearly on the ground and sometimes on buildings. (Nests on or in the ground are done by their well-known cousins, the yellow jackets.)
The bald-faced hornet is about 1 inch long with a black-white body. Large jaws are used to chew leaves and wood to make the nests. The nest began far back in the spring when the queen, the only survivor of last year’s colony, emerged from hibernation and commenced a search for a home site.
Impregnated before the winter sleep, she seeks a spot to lay eggs. These first young are raised and begin the generation of workers that continues to grow and enlarge the colony nest until late summer.
Besides enlarging the home, workers also go out to gather food to bring back for the next batch of young. Within the leafy nest are layers of cells where the larvae develop. Young are fed by the workers — food being prey, usually insects, brought here from their flights.
By late summer, the shorter days tell the hornets that the season is waning. It is at this time that I have frequently found workers in apples and berries where they have gone to satisfy their own sweet tooth before dying.
Through the days of fall, the nests become vacant.
And now we see the nests that were not seen before. It is not unusual that a nest colony was near the house or yards and we never saw it and never got stung. They will fall apart in the winter days, but now we see the empty nests as well as many other animal signs in the AutWin woods.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.