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Our Mission: To encourage the curious mind to explore, in an environment that is safe, supportive, cooperative and productive, any and all aspects of our World, whether man-made or natural in origin, through student interaction, imaginitive play and participative learning.


Now that fall is upon us and the fallen leaves have left the trees barren, we can see many of the things that were hidden from view during the summer months. One such item is the grey, roundish football-sized object suspended from a branch tip high in a tree. “Oh look, there is a bee’s nest!” shouts an intrepid youngster as the blustery winds blow it from side to side. “Don’t get too close or else you are going to get stung” are the further words of advice.

The espied object is not a bee’s nest nor is there any further danger of getting stung. It is either the nest of a yellow jacket, bald-faced hornet or paper wasp, all members of the VESPID family. Though many in this family are solitary insects, these three members are social insects that live in large colonies. They construct their nests from decayed wood materials in trees and bushes, in wall voids, attics, under eaves or on ground hollows.

During the summer, as the queen builds up the colony they will defend their nests vigorously, painful stings brought on by suddenly swarming inhabitants that were disturbed unknowingly by a brush of the leg or a push on a sapling. They are large, they are vicious and they can, unlike the honeybee, sting multiple times.

We are all familiar with the paper wasps and yellow jackets, whose pesky buzzing disturb most summer picnics. They love the taste of nectar and look for the sugars in juices, fruit and desserts. The bald-faced hornet, black and much larger than either the paper wasp or the sizeable yellow jacket is less likely to be a picnic past. That is because this creature feeds on insects and is primarily carnivorous

Unlike the honey bee colonies that survive the winter by hiving up and creating communal heat through muscle movement, the Vespids die in fall. The Queen will seek a place in the leaf mass to shelter and hibernate, coming out in the warmth of the spring to start her colony all over from scratch again. The workers and drones have left the nest and died with the first frosts of winter.

Many collect those beautiful designs of nature at this time of year because they are empty and abandoned (hopefully!). Snip the branch and you have an automatic stand for your exhibit that you can put in a vase, or hang from the wall.

But take a moment to examine the surface of the nest with a magnifying hand-lens. Notice the various colors of the paper. See the ridges and fibrous hairs that are matted together. They are the result of the different woods that the wasps gathered for the construction of their nest. They will seek out the soft, rotting areas in trees, wooden picnic tables, balconies or other structures, chew them and mix them with their saliva before depositing the mixture in cord-like lengths, row upon row to form the protective walls of the nest and egg cells suspended within. If you rip a brown paper lunch bag and hold the ripped edge against the light, you will see the same fibrous hairs in that paper. These are the fibers that give the paper its strength both in the bag and the nest.

And when they have to expand the living quarters because of an increase in the colony, they just much on the inner walls and redeposit them in a bigger diameter. This is an excellent example of closed-loop recycling and the effective use of raw materials in the natural world.

So next time you are out walking in the fall, look for these marvels of insect ingenuity and stop to take a closer look. I assure you, you will be amazed at the precision, beauty and engineering marvel you hold in your hands.

Posted by on 2017-11-06

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