Although I can’t actually see the victim, I’m taking the photographer’s word on it: inside this marauding ball of bees is a bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata.
Sometimes timing is everything, and I was just lining up a little pile of bald-faced bodies here in Washington when this photo arrived from Craig Scott in Delaware. Craig says:
We’ve seen a few bald-faced hornets flying off with bees recently but this one ran into the Italian mob. Took about a half hour, but in the end the wasp lost. Not sure if they stung her to death or used the heat treatment. No bees died from what we could see.
The ones on my patio where killed by menot my bees. After a number of years with very few bald-faced hornets, I see them everywhere this year. Conversely, I see almost no regular yellowjackets. I’ve spent several years going after yellowjacket queens, and since nature abhors a vacuum, the bald-faced hornets have returned with a vengeance.
What do these wasps mean to a beekeeper? Like other wasps, bald-faced hornets feed insects to their young. They prefer live prey and will often snatch it right out of the air. Honey bees are delicious (apparently) and bald-faced hornets are often seen circling the hives, waiting for an opportunity.
Some years ago I witnessed a honey bee hive that was being routed by yellowjackets. Below the hive, a hoard of bald-faced hornets picked off struggling bees and wasps that were tussling on the ground. Although I don’t consider the bald-faced hornet to be a big threat to a hive, a determined wasp will certainly take as many bees as it can get. However, as you can see above, a healthy honey bee colony can defend itself. Once the bees get angry, watch out.
Bald-faced hornets are not really hornets but a species of yellowjacket. They are seldom called yellowjackets because they are not yellow, so they are known by various names including white-faced hornet, white-tailed hornet, or blackjacketnone of which are particularly apt since they are not hornets and a blackjacket is an entirely different species (Vespula consobrina).
Their life cycle is very similar to other yellowjackets and to bumble bees. Queens and drones emerge in late fall, mate, and the queen overwinters in a protected place. Come spring, the female begins a nest, cares for the first batch of workers, and then stays in the nest to lay more eggs while the workers mind the nursery, forage, and defend. Except for new queens, the colony dies off as winter weather arrives.
The nests, constructed in trees and bushes, are often described as football shaped (that would be an American football). The wasps chew wood fibers to make a pulp for nest building, and they forage for nectar and live insects to feed the young. Colonies range from 100 to about 650 individuals, with an average of about 400.
Thanks, Craig, for exposing the mob.