After the first of our serious autumn winds, I picked up a double-decker chunk of papery honeycomb, about six inches in diameter at the widest place with spacers like stiff cardboard keeping the layers a quarter-inch apart. It felt like two rice cakes, with the same sort of weight and heft.
The next evening, we pulled into the driveway in the windy dark to see a large wad of what looked like newspaper flapping in the path – the outer cover to the nest. It retained the familiar half-a-football shape, broader at the top (nine or ten inches at the widest and a foot or so tall). The small bottom opening remained intact, and a few cells clung to bits of comb inside this paper wrapping. Beautiful paper – a striated series of colors separated by white – madrona reddish-brown rust, gray, and the greeny-brown of alder branches.
The telltale shape led to a guess, with Internet help, that the nest belonged to Bald-faced Hornets – beneficial wasps with fierce stings, which usually build their nests high in trees.
Various web sites describe how a queen overwinters (with the sperm needed to fertilize her eggs already stored within her) and begins a new nest in the spring. In the course of a summer, descendants of the queen’s first generation build this metropolis of a house, one mouthful of chewed up bark and saliva at a time. These combs aren’t really honeycombs, each cell is a hatching chamber for one egg. Adult workers dine on nectar and fruit pulp, but they earn their beneficial reputation because they catch (and pre-chew) insects to feed their larvae.
In the fall, new queens and males mate. The old queen dies. The young queens find a safe place, usually on the ground, to spend the winter.
The third day after the storm, I found a broken alder branch with shreds of nest still attached. Less than quarter-inch in diameter, it looks a flimsy choice to hold this dwelling place for thousands of creatures, but it worked. Nests are only designed for one season. It’s a cooperative, brief lifespan.
Walking home with the branch, I thought I could keep up the paper project and make an image of the nest. As I thought how to replicate with paper the colors in these narrow strata – I realized the hornets had left me paper suitable for a collage!
Sometimes Mrs. Delaney used real plant material in her collages – a real leaf with paper ones, the filigree capsule holding a Chinese lantern berry – she’d approve using the hornet’s nest to make a picture of a their home.