Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Hornets aplenty

Just off my regular route to work, there is a large hollow tree by the river. The cavity is at ground level, large enough to accommodate those of slender build and heavily charred thanks to the fondness of the local children for all things pyrotechnic. At the back of the cavity, the pale off-white form of a large hornets nest provides a striking contrast to the charcoal black trunk. The nest extends down, marked with horizontal bands of cream, brown, yellow and white, that delineate the many layers of chewed wood pulp that have been processed by the hornets and formed into the paper soft structure. Even now the nest is active, with up to a dozen hornets around its entrance at any one time. Each magnificent individual is close on three centimetres in length, with a warm cinnamon-brown tinge to the wings, pronotum and legs. These are the largest and most majestic of our eight species of social wasp. In my experience they are also the most docile, being extremely good-natured around the nest. The presence of the nest explains the large number of hornet sightings along the river over recent weeks, as workers strike out in search of food.

At this time of the year such a nest could harbour several hundred individuals. Certainly, the steady stream of returning individuals and departures of others suggests as much. Most navigate between me and the entrance to the cavity, as I try to position my camera so as to get a shot of the nest. Others, just the odd one here and there, give me the once over, perhaps curious as to the object that now blocks their usual approach to the nest. It is amazing to be so close to such a large nest; those I have seen in previous years have tended to be far smaller.

The hornet is a rather uncommon and sometimes localised species, though widely distributed across the southern half of Britain. Most nests are, like this one, located in tree cavities, although they may be found within buildings or, occasionally, in cavities beneath the ground’s surface. Like the other social wasps, the hornet has an image problem and has become one of the most feared of British insects. This is a real shame, not least because it preys on a wide range of insects that are typically classed as garden pests. They may occasionally become a nuisance by preying on honeybees or by ring barking lilac shoots to exploit the sap but, left alone, they are one of the good guys. The question of just how long this nest will be left alone remains to be seen. With a footpath close by, the cavity is tempting for adventurous children.

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