The Mystery of the Gray and Crinkly Home in the Tree

The Mystery of the Gray and Crinkly Home in the Tree

Walking my dogs Addy, Blueberry and Dunkin around the neighborhood, I notice a lot of things.

Old, beautiful cars parked behind houses.

Home improvement projects.

Unfamiliar dogs.

The usual cats.

Perennial cicada shells.

Sandhill cranes above, heading north or south depending on the time of year.

Dogs walking in winter environment
Dunkin, Blueberry and Addy help me observe the peculiar on our winter walks. – Photo by J.T. Morand

In the winter, I see things that are hard to spot in spring, summer and fall, when leaves are still on the trees. Nests, especially, draw my eyes upward. One, in particular, piqued my curiosity this winter.

Who’s Home?

It hangs in a tree on the other side of the block, like a forgotten and ill Christmas ornament. It’s round, gray, dry and wrinkly with a few brown leaves stuck to it. Generally, there’s not much that’s interesting to see in west suburban Chicago in January and February, so this nest, though drab in color like the surrounding environment, stands out as a wonder.

Obviously it belonged to bees, hornets or wasps, but I was curious to know who, exactly, lives there and what they’re doing inside it during the winter months. I envisioned black and yellow bugs sleeping until nature’s alarm clock rings in the spring, when they’d all come flying out of the nest at once to do whatever they do. Sometimes I allowed my mind to anthropomorphize the situation, imagining the winged creatures sitting around, playing cards or watching Netflix and telling one of the smaller insects to poke his or her head out of the nest’s hole to see if spring had arrived yet.

“Not yet, boss,” the insect would report back. “Still snow on the ground. And there’s some guy out there with three dogs staring at our nest. You want I should chase them off?”

I also wanted to know how this fragile-looking structure remains intact against rain and snow and attached to the tree, even when winds gust in the 60 to 70 miles per hour range.

The itch to know increased every time I walked past it with my dogs. 

nest in tree
The nest on a day in late January 2022 – Photo by J.T. Morand

Mystery Solved

So, I reached out to Chan Dolan, a budding entomologist I met last August at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, Illinois. Chan, a master’s student in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota, was part of the Nachusa Bee Research Team that led a bumble bee count on the 3,800-acre preserve made up of remnant prairie, wetlands and woodlands.

She said the nest looks like it belongs to a colony of wasps — aerial yellowjackets to be exact — and added that the nest is made of paper-like material from hardwood trees.

An eastern yellowjacket worker by Goshzilla – Dann is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Wasps will basically make a paper mache out of little balls of collected wood and saliva to construct their home,” Chan said. “This allows the nest to have a lot of strength and flexibility. This is likely why these nests are still so sturdy in the winter, even when there is no one inside.” 

There goes my fantasy of snoozing, card playing or TV watching wasps. 

The Lives of Yellowjackets are Short but Busy

Chan explained that most yellowjackets in a colony live only four to six months. The only members of the colony to live longer and through the winter are the new queens from the summer before. But they spend the cold season underground. However, before queens hibernate, they will mate with male yellowjackets, called drones. When the queens awaken in the spring and leave their ground lairs, they will search for new nest locations and begin building. When most of the nest is constructed, the queen will lay her first eggs.

From these eggs will come worker yellowjackets, which are sterile females. They will continue building the nest, hunt for food and care for worker wasps born throughout the summer. Toward the end of the season, queens will produce both drones and fertile queens. 

“These two groups of wasps will leave the colony and search for mates from other colonies,” Chan said. “The cycle then repeats as the newly mated queen finds a place to sleep for winter. The rest of the colony will die out before winter.”

Drones die shortly after mating. 

Used nests remain vacant, just a reminder of a once thriving population until they disintegrate. 

deteriorating wasp nest
The yellowjacket nest I spotted in January has deteriorated significantly by February 21 with the bottom having fallen away. – Photo by J.T. Morand

Taking the Sting out of Wasp Fears

Wasps have a bad reputation for being aggressive and surly, but it is not justified. There are a few wasp species that are, to the human perspective, bad tempered. But we tend to consider all wasps angry stingers. Because of that, we fail to realize the importance of wasps in the ecosystem. The same goes for bees, too.

“They pollinate plants and some wasp species are predatory of other insects, which maintains the balance of species in a healthy ecosystem,” Chan, whose studies focus on bees, said. “Without bees and wasps, plants would most definitely suffer from not being able to reproduce or they’d be eaten by herbivores.”

Eastern yellowjacket by treegrow is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now that I know a little more about wasps — how industrious they are, the resilience of the queens, the short lifespan of workers and drones, their value as pollinators and hunters — I appreciate them. I’m happy to learn that the abundant yellowjackets I see in my neighborhood during the summer and early fall are nothing to fear. I’m grateful for seeing the wasps nest that hangs from the tree on the other side of my block, for if I had not spotted it while walking my dogs this winter, I might not have learned anything about these creatures.

“I think an important step in being more comfortable with our Hymenopteran friends is to simply learn more about them on a personal level,” Chan said. “These organisms have a rep of being stinging fiends and super scary, which is sometimes true. However, I urge folks to take the time to learn about the types of wasps they see throughout the summer. Ask yourself why these wasps may be nesting outside your window and if they truly mean harm. Learn about these insects and how they are an important part of the direct environment we live in.”

She added, “Wasps and bees are beautiful animals with interesting colors and behaviors. I wouldn’t trade them for anything!” 

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