The nest in the photo is not a “bees’ nest.”
Wasps, yellow jackets, baldface hornets, and, in fact, ants, are in the same order as bees – Hymenoptera – but not the same family, Vespidae versus Apidae.
As foreboding as the nest looks, it is unoccupied and almost certainly will never again be occupied. All of the workers died with the onset of freezing temperatures, and the fertilized queen is wintering alone, protected in a crevice somewhere.
As I walked by this nest recently, I realized it has a story to tell. Situated in a front lawn, about six feet off the ground and fifteen feet from a street and a driveway, surprisingly, this nest escaped extermination.
The first clue to its survival is the presence of maple leaves stuck to the nest. When trees are in full leaf, all sorts of nests can be hidden from view. But this home for yellow jackets is on a lower branch, so by all appearances, it cannot have been disguised from below.
A second possible clue to the story may or may not be relevant: notice the branch to which the nest is attached is curved and sloping down toward the ground. Notice also that most of the other branches on this maple tree point skyward. Is it possible that the nest was built higher from the ground but that as it gained in size and weight – remember that in contrast to a honey bee hive, the entire size of the hive reflects only one year’s growth – as the nest grew heavier, did the branch bow downward under its increasing weight?
Depending on the species, the colony associated with this nest grew from zero to hundreds or even thousands of insects over the course of the growing season. Yet the colony peaked in size in August or September, while the lawn underneath it was still growing. So the nest would have been heaviest – thus bending the branch – by late summer. But now the nest is empty, and the branch remains bowed, so if anything, it is higher off the ground now than during summer.
From the photo, you can tell the lawn has been mowed more recently than July, so it is likely that the lawn was mowed when the nest was still active.
Thus these clues point us in a different direction. While it is difficult for me to imagine, it seems likely that the homeowner was aware of the nest, continued mowing, but took measures to avoid it.
Why would someone do this? First, yellow jackets are not only pollinators for the garden, they eat undesirable insects and even carrion. Second, since yellow jacket nests are not perennial homes, it is only a short-term problem. Third, if you stay off their front porch, even nasty yellow jackets can be relatively safe neighbors.
Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.