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By Adam Pritchett, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Two types of hornets are common to Alabama, the bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) and the European or giant hornet (Vespa crabro). The bald-faced hornet is the more common of the two and usually builds its nest in trees or shrubs. The giant hornet builds its nest inside hollow trees, house attics or attaches it to walls.
A nest is distinguished by an inverted teardrop-shaped ball with a small opening at the bottom of the nest. Each nest contains one queen and anywhere from 100 to 700 male workers who are responsible for building and expanding the nest. The infrastructure consists of chewed wood pulp mixed with saliva, which forms the outer walls. The inside of the nest consists of a network of cellular structures with each cell layer being slightly smaller than the previous thus creating the teardrop shape. As the interior cell structures expand, the workers will remove the inside layers and add them to the outside covering, continually making the nest larger.
Many people attempt to collect hornets’ nests, but several precautions should be taken beforehand. If you want to try it, here is what the professionals recommend. Wait until dark when all the hornets are back in the nest. Pick a cool night where the hornets won’t be as active. If you are not in a hurry to get the nest you can simply wait until winter since hornets’ nests are annual and they usually leave after the first or second frost.
To continue the collection, wrap a large garbage bag over the entire nest and dispense a can or two of wasp spray into the bag and close the top. After the nest has been treated, wait at least 24 hours before removing the bag to make sure all the hornets have died. Then simply untie the bag and clip the branches where it is attached. You may want to leave the nest in your barn or garage for a week or two because the dead hornets and larvae may produce a slight odor. The nest will then need to be stored or displayed in a dry location. This will ensure that it will last for many years.
In many cases, hornets are considered pests and can prove very troublesome to landowners. However, hornets are beneficial to the ecosystem because they feed on live insects, caterpillars and flies; their nests should, in most cases, be left alone. For more information on hornets and their nests contact the Alabama Department of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Wildlife Section at 334-242-3469.