Nature Nearby: Empty nests in winter

January 10, 2014

A winter revelation: This large paper nest. in a tree along the Northwest Branch, is usually well hidden by leaves. Photo courtesy Fred Seitz. (December 2013)

FRED SEITZ

BY FRED SEITZ — One of the revelations winter brings is the display of animal homes aloft in the trees and elsewhere.  Last winter, I reported on the seasonal show of bird and squirrel nests, but recent walks in Hyattsville reminded me of other local homebuilders and homesteaders. A walk with one of my dogs in the past couple weeks along the Northwest Branch Trail revealed a large paper nest in a tree. The nest’s survival nest through the wind, ice and rain was something of a surprise and the fact that I hadn’t seen it until the tree shed almost all of its leaves led me to admire the builders’ workmanship.

The nest had been started in spring by a queen aerial yellow jacket or possibly a queen hornet; it was completed in late spring or early summer by some of her “worker” offspring while she would continue her maternal function, laying more eggs. The workers bring small amounts of shredded wood or paper and mix it with saliva and other bodily chemicals to form individual cells. When the cells are attached together, the structure is so strong it can house thousands of the queen’s offspring.

At this time of year, the queen and her offspring have departed the nest and will not reuse it next spring. The nest has probably been adopted as a temporary residence by earwigs or other insects looking for “any port in the storms.”

The yellow jacket often builds nests of wood or paper underground. Some species will also build their nests in trees or under the eaves of buildings. Hornets, which are also wasps and close kin to yellow jackets often build their nests in trees, but occasionally will construct the nest in a rotting log on the ground.

These cousins are known for their stings. But they are actually beneficial, preying on many garden and agricultural pests. While both visit picnics and are frequent consumers of soda or other sweetened drinks, they also visit plants for nectar in spring and summer. They do not, however, store honey in their nests.

Mud dauber nest on a Hyattsville home.

The telltale tubular nest of a mud dauber, often spotted under the eaves of Hyattsville homes. Photo courtesy Fred Seitz.

Walking back from the Northwest Branch, I noticed a second set of “nests” on the sides of several human residences in the area. The familiar mud daubers are another wasp, but are solitary, rather than living in large colonies like their yellow jacket and hornet cousins. They frequently build their nests under the eaves of houses. In other areas, they may build their nests on caves, bridges or rock outcrops. While the local mud daubers build the longer tube-like nests from mud, other types build clusters of smaller urn-shaped nests which may be clumped together. Some mud daubers will appropriate the abandoned nest of other mud daubers.

Those who build their nests will carry small globs of mud in their mandibles for construction. The daubers will lay a single egg in each tube or chamber, and then stock it with spiders (including black widows and crab spiders) to serve as food for newly hatched offspring. Some mother daubers will guard the nest from potential predators (such as different types of wasps). Unlike their hornet or yellow jacket kin, the daubers may return in the spring and reuse their nest or build new nests in the same location. While capable of stinging, mud daubers are generally less aggressive than their yellow jacket and hornet cousins.

Despite this perceived lower level of aggression, mud daubers have been blamed for at least two airplane crashes. In both cases, the wasps built their muddy nests in the  tubes of the planes airspeed indicators which are in tubes on the exterior of the aircraft and caused faulty airspeed readings.