It’s like a scene from a cheap horror movie, except that it’s no movie. You are in the woods, miles from the nearest town; far, even, from another human being. But you are not alone. Hornets are everywhere, and they are checking you out. A background buzz constantly permeates the normally silent woods.
Since late July, I have been working on a forest inventory project in central Idaho. As a consulting forester, I travel to the Pacific Northwest each summer when the Georgia heat becomes unbearable. This is a return trip; I worked here last October (see Idaho Photo Diary and Idaho Photo Diary 2). As far as forestry projects go, this one is pretty nice. The rolling mountains aren’t all that steep. Elevations of close to one mile keep temperatures comfortable, though the afternoon sun can be pretty fierce. There are plenty of places I can camp for free, while the nearby towns of McCall and New Meadows, tourist destinations that they are, offer all the services a traveler might need. A $20 meal is a reasonable expense for me, since I’m not shelling out $100 or more per night to stay in one of the tourist motels. Life is good, except for the hornets.
When I arrived here, I had no intention of becoming an expert in hornet behavior. The local foresters warned me that the populations were incredibly high, that nests were everywhere, and it was likely to get worse as the season progressed. September and October tend to be the peak months for wasp populations. This year, in early August, there were already more hornets than I had ever seen. By “ever,” I mean ever in my entire life. I worried what September might bring. The foresters also reminded me that the woods held wolves, bears, and cougars. Within a few days, I concluded that they’d all have to get in line behind the hornets.
Please note that this account is not intended to be a purely scientific article. Rather, it is a set of observations from nearly two months of living in close proximity to the stinging insects. Entomologists consider the American baldfaced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) to be a yellow jacket, rather than a true hornet. And then there are numerous species of yellow jackets.
“Camping” for me usually means setting up my sleeping bag and pads in the camper shell of the pickup truck. Out in the woods, there aren’t that many perfectly flat places to pitch a tent. Most spots that pass the flatness test are littered with small rocks. The bed of the truck is more comfortable, and as an added benefit, I’m less likely to be eaten by bears in the middle of the night. I typically relax after a long day by sitting in my camp chair in a shady spot with a breeze and a view.
This year I have been a prisoner in the cab of the truck, usually with the windows rolled up. From the first light of day until it is nearly dark, the hornets are out there. When I wake up in the morning, I can hear them buzzing, sometimes ramming the metal and glass of the camper shell with their heads, as if testing for a weakness in my defenses. The moment I step outside, they come to greet me.
Usually it begins with a single hornet. It moves quickly, taking full advantage of the 3D world it inhabits. Starting at the feet, it begins to inspect me. Boldly, fearlessly, it buzzes frantically back and forth, inspecting front and back, gradually working its way upwards towards the top of my head. It appears to be constructing a holographic image to share with its nest mates. The first hornet is soon joined by others, all making their own inspections. A dozen more are making their own inspections of the truck.
If all they did was inspect me, I’d be fine with their presence. Trouble is, at some point the buzzing stops. A hornet has landed on you somewhere. Their favorite landing spot is on the feet and ankles. Their second favorite place is, um, several inches below the belly button. At this point, “live and let live” is hardly a viable option. Their third favorite spot is somewhere on the head. Is anyone reading this still a pacifist?
Who would have guessed that my most useful piece of camp gear is the frisbee that I brought along in case I happen upon a game of ultimate? With a carefully timed wave, I can knock a hornet out of the sky. Amazingly, the insect usually bounces off the ground and flies away, often to return and torment me again. I’ve learned to respect the strength afforded by an exoskeleton! If the hornet is momentarily stunned, I crush it with my boot. But there is no peace. More will come. And more, and more, and more.
Away from camp, a ragged cap takes the place of the frisbee. It’s not as lethal, but it serves its purpose. Imagine trying to measure trees and enter the information into a data recorder, all the while battling a motley assortment of flying insects, many armed with stingers. I do it all day long, every day. But hey, the scenery is awesome, the weather is great, and the pay is good.
Thus far I’ve only been stung once. It happened a week after I got here. I had just completed a round of work, munched on some lunch, moved the truck to a new location, and reentered the woods. My first tree-measurement point was a mere 50 feet downhill from the road. That short distance was quite steep, and I carefully stepped from the dirt road into the brush – directly into a ground nest of yellow jackets! Having already started down the steep bank, I could not turn around; I ran downhill instead. When I felt I was a safe distance away, I stopped and checked my clothing. No yellow jackets. At the very instant that began to believe that all was well, my eyes beheld a blur of wings, followed quickly by a hot sting to the forehead. Looking around, I realized that I was standing about 15 feet from a hornet nest! Hornets, being more aggressive than yellow jackets in defending their homeland, were clinging to the outside of the nest, waiting for an excuse to attack. As I backed away from the nest, a second hornet darted directly at my face. With a fortuitous swipe of my cap, I knocked it from the sky and mashed it with my boot before it could get up and attack again. There were still trees to measure, by the way. I made a quick estimate, and got the hell away. For rest of the day, I was on pins and needles any time I approached a brushy area. A paper nest surrounded by shrubbery is often difficult to see until it is too late, as I had already discovered.
Two hours later, with a line of plots finished, I looped back to my truck, hiking an extra distance across a treeless, rocky opening to avoid any more nests. By the time I reached the truck, Satan had convinced me to extract a measure of revenge. I gathered a small pile of baseball sized rocks, peered over the edge until I could see the hornet nest, and began lobbing. The third stone struck the bush holding the nest, and shook it violently. I got into the truck and drove away. The yellow jackets in their nearby underground nest got a free ride because they had not come after me even though I stepped on their house.
Thus far I have only mentioned the yellow jackets in passing. Some species nest underground, some build round paper nests in trees and underbrush (hornets prefer above-ground nests). Roughly half as big as their black-and-white relatives, the yellow jackets do their own dances, although their intentions are much more direct: they are looking for food. The simple acts of heating water for coffee, or making a sandwich, become tense ordeals punctuated with much flailing of the arms.
I have discovered that there’s more to the hornets’ version of the dance than constructing 3D images of me and my gear. When yellow jackets congregate around camp, zigging and zagging in search of food, hornets will enter the same airspace. At first, I thought the hornets were merely after my food. But one day I watched as a hornet synchronized its motions with that of a yellow jacket. At the right instant, it lunged and captured the yellow jacket in mid-flight. The pair momentarily fell to the ground. Quickly, though, the hornet gained control of its prey and flew away with it. The yellow jackets never win this battle. A few escape, but most become hornet dinner. After witnessing this life and death battle, I began paying more attention, and discovered that this is a common occurrence. Based on pictures I took when predator and prey landed on a blue plastic bag (offering a better background than the forest floor), it seems that the hornet bites off the wings and legs of its prey so that escape becomes impossible.
In the picture below, a second hornet has joined in. I believe that it was attempting to steal the yellow jacket, or perhaps kill the first hornet while it was distracted. It did not appear to be there to help.
I’m still trying to figure out what the hornets expect to gain by constantly inspecting people, vehicles, and camping gear. It seems that they’d go away once they determine that none of these objects have any food value, especially if there are no yellow jackets to capture. Wouldn’t their time be better spent by looking for food elsewhere?
Recent diarists and commenters in the Daily Bucket series mentioned the intelligence they had observed in creatures as diverse as the octopus and the dragonfly. I will add the hornet to that list. It seems to me that they have a high degree of curiosity about their territory. Whenever something changes, especially when a large object such as a vehicle appears, they are compelled to learn everything about it and convey that information to their colony. My totally unscientific conclusion is that their collective wisdom has allowed them to conclude that an open tailgate often equates to food. They will always spend more time at the back of the truck. While the yellow jackets are busy collecting the dead insects from the front, the hornets seem fascinated by the tailgate.
Another interesting trait of hornets is their ability to navigate around windows. If a house fly or a horsefly ends up in your vehicle, it will hurl itself against the same square foot of glass until it is completely exhausted. Hornets will casually explore the space, flying around slowly until an opening is located. Then they’ll tell all their buddies what they’ve found. Soon, other hornets will be flying through that partially open window.
And how far will hornets range from their nest? Here’s a clue. Late one afternoon, having finished the day’s work, I was parked near a small creek. It was little more than a trickle, but it was a major water source for insects and other creatures. The sun illuminated a meadow that I measured to be 200 feet across, while the trees on the other side cast long shadows. This created a perfect situation for observing hornets as they crossed the meadow. Some were foraging, but others flew in a direct line to the creek. The direct fliers traversed the opening in five seconds. That’s about 27 miles per hour, if I did the math correctly. They can cover a mile in about two minutes. Think about that the next time you are running from a nest. They only stop chasing you because they choose to. If they ever mutate into a species that seeks us out and chases us down, we are all doomed to a life indoors.
But there is a twist to this saga of runaway population growth. In early September, the time of year I was dreading because I expected to see even more hornets and yellow jackets, the populations suddenly crashed. In about two weeks’ time, their numbers had dwindled to the point where they were hardly a threat. What happened?
Perhaps they ran out of food. At their peak, the woods were strangely devoid of other crawling or flying life forms. No spiders, very few flies or mosquitoes. Even the caterpillars that had been defoliating the grand fir trees had seemingly vanished.
Meanwhile, bears have been systematically finding and digging up all of the underground nests, making a meal of the larvae. Some sources say that bears eat the adult yellow jackets as well. I have not seen an intact ground nest in two weeks.
The above-ground nests, home to both yellow jackets and hornets, have mostly disappeared as well. Some grew too large for small stems they were built on, and fell to the ground. Others hang tattered in the trees.
With hornets no longer tormenting me, I can enjoy views like this:
Whatever the cause, the populations have crashed, and did so in short order. Might there be a lesson for a certain higher life form whose members believe themselves to be immune to nature’s controls on growth?