Over the last six weeks our volunteers have been eagerly watching a hornet's nest down on the path that leads from the Hide to the Tame River. With cameras ready in hand they've headed down each weekend to record its progress, documenting the different stages of nest building. The nest itself is being constructed inside the hollow of an old gnarly oak tree - one of the oldest on the Sandwell reserve. It's estimated to be around 100 years old. (When compared to our other 30 year old trees across the reserve this is very old indeed!)
There are three holes in the tree which allow the hornets to enter and exit, doubling up as a kind of ventilation system. When winter comes the hornets may choose to close one or two of these entrances to defend themselves against the cold, and prevent any harsh winds that might damage the nest. The nest has been built in the old hollow oak tree with the hornets removing any further rotting wood by clearing it out and dropping it away from the nest. The worker hornets fly away to collect insects for feeding the larvae in their nest and also chew up wood into a pulp and mix it with saliva in order to build their nest, creating a sort of papery look to their home.
A hornet's nest, if not disturbed, can last up to 3 or 4 years and takes quite a while to build. It is intricately constructed, and when observed closely it is a fantastic display of the mathematical workings of the natural world. Each hexagonal cell is perfectly made, with multiple layers building up over time. The larvae are individually housed in each of these cells, and after three weeks they will emerge as worker hornet, one of the many to join this thriving, busy hive, working together under the rule of the queen.
A few weeks ago one of our volunteers spotted a hornet sitting at the entrance to the nest. This hornet is known as a guard. Much like any guard to a castle, the hornet will keenly watch every passer-by that approaches the hive, greet them at the doorway and then, if they belong to the hive, let them pass through. Hornets are very defensive creatures, so if you do choose to go and have a look at their nest be careful to stay on the path, keep a safe distance, and don't provoke them.
You can often see hornets between May and November, they are our largest British wasp, so our volunteers are hoping to document the hornet's progress until the winter season.
Find out more about hornets on the RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/other-garden-wildlife/insects-and-other-invertebrates/bees-wasps-ants/hornet/
Photo credit: Andy Purcell
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