Forest Findings: Aerial Nest

by Colleen Dabrowski

In North America, there are twenty two species of paper-making wasps. In New Jersey, there are two well-known paper nest makers: paper wasps and bald-faced hornets. Polisties, or paper wasps, are some of the best known aerial nest makers in the Hymenoptera order, which also includes bees and ants.

The term aerial nest refers to nests built 10 feet to 20 feet high up, usually in trees. These nests have a unique appearance and can be easily identified. Roughly the size of a basketball, these aerial nests have a rough, paper-like appearance, lending to the nickname paper wasps. The nests are round or egg-shaped, generally off-white or tan in color, with a hole at the bottom facing the ground. According to Insect Identification, the nests are constructed through the wasps making a paste mixture of chewed wood or other plant matter and saliva. The type of wood or plant matter chewed can cause the color variation of the nest. The building wasps have a sticky and water-proof quality to their saliva that allows the plant matter to bind together and stay dry.

The design of the nests, according to the Infinite Spider, is similar to that of bees, with the nest starting at the petiole, or stalk, attached to the tree. From the petiole, hexagonal combs are developed. Interestingly, wasps that build their nests underground construct their nests in the same manner. In fact, they are often identical to the nests built high in trees.

In the winter, the worker wasps of paper nests die from the cold. The only survivor is the nest’s queen, who either flees or hides from the cold in the cracks in trees and wood or under bark. The paper nests do not hold up well from the wetness of winter and often fall from trees. Paper builders do not reuse their nests after the winter, but rather rebuild a new nest every spring. By the fall, a once-empty nest can have over 1,000 wasp occupants.

Again, paper nests are constructed typically by one of two species: the paper wasp or the bald-faced hornet. Unfortunately, the nests cannot easily be told apart. This can quickly lead to trouble, as paper wasps are not known for aggression and are generally docile. Bald-faced hornets, however, are particularly savage. They will chase people down without hesitation if their nest is bothered. As a general rule, don’t bother the nests. For your own safety, admire the craftsmanship from a safe distance.

A wonderful example of a paper nest can be found in a tree in the small circle behind Brothers College.

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