Be It Ever So Humble

Colors and Texture of the Paper Wasp Nest

It is always instructive to go without.  Restrict fats, salt, sugar and you learn how food really tastes.  Eat lobster without drawn butter and find lobster unadorned is sublime!  Before, all was butter.  Now, lobster has something new.  It’s called flavor.

Similarly in late fall, when it first seems that nature is null without its greenery,  we can adjust to the absence of leaves and see what has happened all around, disguised under a mantle of foliage.  There has been, literally, a beehive of activity going on under our noses! I like to pride myself, a little, on my small ability to “bird by ear”.  That is to say I sometimes can identify birds by their songs.  I pick up some regulars that way, and maybe narrow down others to an identifiable point.  Another good test is looking at nests built in trees and shrubs.  I like this method very much, because I don’t have to do it on the fly.  It is a lot easier when the subject isn’t moving.

It’s lovely to have the leisure really to look carefully at something.  I don’t always, I confess, know what I am looking at.  But armed with a good field guide and unlimited time, I can usually arrive at an educated guess. So I like nests.  You can see so many in December’s empty branches, I often feel ashamed that I didn’t realize so many different birds were around.

Oriole Nest

The easiest to spot seem to be oriole’s nests.  Swinging above, they look to me like ladies’ purses of yesteryear, not really big enough to hold much but inexplicably capacious nonetheless.  If you are lucky enough to notice one during breeding season, and you settle down for a nice look-see, you might get a view of an oriole parent returning to the nest to feed babies.  These parents are clever. They set down in a nearby tree, hopping closer by degrees until they all at once pop into the pendulous nest which barely seems big enough to hold one bird, let alone a clutch of straining babies and an adult! Built of spiders’ webs, lichen and seemingly a lot of good luck, the nest bulges under the strain but holds up manfully time after time.

And it isn’t only birds. Hornets are busy all spring and summer, creating huge elliptical nests that look like they are made from grey paper. We call the bugs paper wasps, hornets and other names. Made from tree pulp and a sort of spit, the nest  seems like real paper – after all paper is water and pulp. But what these insects do with it is nothing short of a miracle, perhaps more of a miracle than the things people sometimes do with paper.   

The hornet queen snuggles down for the winter somewhere dry like a wall or under some moss.  When spring arrives, she searches out a good place for a nest. Hollow trees and high branches are favored locations.  She creates a sturdy link t0 hold the nest to the branch or cavity.  Then she builds “cells”-tiny little chambers, in a row and lays eggs in them.  The first comb will have between five and ten cells.  A little less than a week later, the babies hatch and the queen feeds them constantly so they will grow quickly, turning first into little cocoons, then into grown hornets.  These new “workers” are all female, and they snap into action instantly building new combs and attaching them to the original.  Over the course of the summer the nest grows fatter with exponentially developing new cells and hornets until summer’s apex of warmth and light, when production begins to fall off. The elliptical shape forms as each new row of cells made is just a little smaller than the one before.

Egg-Filled Cells

I suppose the reason I like looking at nests is that they are homes.  Who doesn’t enjoy a surreptitious look around someone’s house, picking up snatches of information about their habits and tastes?  It may be,  and I think it is, one of the reasons people find Hill-Stead so fascinating.  A  favorite childhood pastime for me involved walking my dog after dark, looking into the homes of people with their lights on so I could imagine I lived there and what that might be like.  I checked out decor, and if I could see people, watched to see if they looked happy or not.

In adulthood, I seem to have transferred this little diversion toward natural history.  But the feeling is the same, the subjects no less interesting, and one no less intricate than the other, just different.  Nature’s role is less tortured than that of man.  Insects, animals, birds’ nests, are simply what they were meant to be. Only humans thrash around questioning our roles in the universe. It may be that too many analytical skills are a disadvantage.  When you’ve flailed about too much it’s good, if you can, to go home.   Be it woven nest, split-level house, or moss-covered hidey-hole, we all need to get out of the elements from time to time and rest.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

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21 Responses to “Be It Ever So Humble”

  1. magdalena Says:

    I learned more about wasps from this! And it was evocative of my own childhood in the hills of Northern Maine. Well, now I’m all ready to get outdoors again, but I’ll wait for the rain to stop.

  2. SallyK Says:

    I’m always so amazed when the leaves fall off the trees how many nests you can see. All that going on over our heads and we don’t take the time to see. I wish I could bird by ear – how did you learn?

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      Hello-I think the cd’s by Petersen-Birding by Ear and More Birding by Ear are excellent. And there are many more, for example, Stokes is terrific. Play the cd’s in your car and you’ll be surprised what you pick up. Good luck! Diane

  3. slamdunk Says:

    Interesting post–I need to look around more as you advise.

  4. Joanie Says:

    It’s -20 below zero in Minnesota today. I was trying to remember a warm thought and was reminded about this past August. I happened to log onto my blog. and noticed your article on paper wasp nests. We have just finished completing a cedar-lined closet remodel-due to these pesky fly-bys. I had often noticed my neighbors huge “nest” but never imagined “they” would bother me. It wasn’t until my husband was stung, numerous times, that we realized we had a infestation in our closet. Needless to say, a nest had been built in our clothes storage area. We are hoping that next summer will not be a repeat of this one!

  5. Your Gardener in Grime Says:

    I really enjoyed the detail and reflections in your blog. Yes, we humans do thrash about too much being overly pensive.

  6. SallyKhillsteadnatureblog Says:

    Im always so amazed when the leaves fall off the trees how many nests you can see. All that going on over our heads and we dont take the time to see. I wish I could bird by ear how did you learn?Hello-I think the cds by Petersen-Birding by Ear and More Birding by Ear are excellent. And there are many more, for example, Stokes is terrific. Play the cds in your car and youll be surprised what you pick up. Good luck! Diane

  7. Rohit Says:

    Wow,
    What a compilation.
    You have made me watch all the trees and birds whenever I go for a jog/walk. But at the same time, you have made my jog a bit slower

  8. wheelyboy Says:

    Cool blog. I too am facinated by the complexities of nature. Specially the little things that most others ignore. They prefer the more flashy animals

  9. robert niro Says:

    wow cool ! excellent, i like it

  10. Caroline Marks Says:

    Ive been looking around for articles similar to this but never found one that actually was valuable such as this. Glad I found this place!

  11. Attili Sattibabu Says:

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  12. Hisaw Says:

    Thank you a lot of useful information, there is much to learn here!

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  14. Tamisha Monfils Says:

    Nice contribution. Thanks.

  15. Bill Miller Says:

    Wow. A New Year but where are the new posts? Please write something new 🙂 – Bill

    • hillsteadnatureblog Says:

      Thanks, Bill. There should be a new post up in a day or so. The holidays made me lazy. Cheers, Diane

  16. Fannie Aden Says:

    Many thanks for the article. I appreciate it. You have a very well-designed website.

  17. Circus of the Spineless #47 « Beetles In The Bush Says:

    […] Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, writes at Hill-Stead’s Nature Blog. In her post, Be it ever so humble, she takes a look at some of the different animal nests that become revealed during autumn’s […]

  18. Rambling Woods Says:

    Diane..I do this on a smaller scale in my yard..I am amazed at what goes on around the pond and woods..Michelle. My COS post… Autumn Meadowhawks Mating.

  19. hillsteadnatureblog Says:

    Michelle, Of course I already saw it-and I really enjoyed it. I LOVE COS. Your photos are great. Cheers, Diane

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