The Architects of Intricate Nests

The Architects of Intricate Nests

By Hal and Laura Mahan

A few years ago one of our customers brought to us a large bald-faced hornet nest that is nicely attached to a large branch, making it convenient for decorative hanging high in a corner of our store. It’s interesting! It draws your attention, just as it would if you noticed it in nature up in the branches of a tree or bush.

A couple of weeks ago our employee Amanda brought in what seemed to be a miniature version of the hornet nest, measuring just a couple of inches across. We looked at it under the microscope, and were fascinated by the deliberate pattern of fibers in its construction. It is amazing to realize that this paper-thin but sturdy structure was made by an insect. What is it made of? What is its purpose? How do insects construct these and other types of nests that we see in the summertime, hanging from porch ceilings or plastered to walls? For us it seems that when you notice an aspect of nature, you start noticing all kinds of things that make you ask more questions. That is the essence of curiosity, and the essence of being a naturalist.

These insects that we call bees, wasps and hornets are fascinating and important creatures. Did you ever think about the fact that bees are “furry” and wasps and hornets are not? The little hairs on bees help them gather pollen, which they use as food, along with nectar from the flowers. Wasps and hornets, on the other hand, are predators. They catch and kill other insects for food.

Just think about the benefits of these insects. Bees are extremely important pollinators as they travel from flower to flower. Wasps and hornets help keep populations of other insects (including garden pests) under control by eating them.

For the most part, these insects do not bother us if they are left alone. Of course, care must be taken not to disturb active nests, especially for people who are allergic to stings. Yellow jackets tend to nest underground, perhaps in a rodent hole. Other nests are made from wax that the insect secretes (honey bees). Some insects collect mud. Others collect small pieces of wood that they chew up and mix with their own “saliva” to make a kind of paper (yes, our bald-faced hornet!).

The queen bald-faced hornet spends the winter in a crevice or under tree bark. In the spring she emerges and constructs the small beginning of the “nest” that we see in the photograph. She creates a few hexagonal cells, lays an egg in each one, and then creates the round paper covering. The first offspring that hatch then continue to enlarge the nest. Nest makers are killed off by freezing temperatures with just the queens surviving to create new ones next spring, which is how we can collect these impressive vacant structures in the wintertime without being stung.

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit or call 828.274.5430.

Leave a Comment