Crows and hornets

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(Host) Recently commentator Ted Levin undertook a bit of scientific research with the help of a most unlikely assistant.

(Levin) The patterns and rhythms of nature are as close to perfection, as close to predictable as Earth has to offer. But nature also has surprise, suspense, and serendipity.

Last month, when the leaves came down in a swirl of red and yellow, I noticed a bald-faced hornet nest thirty feet above the stonewall, hanging like a Christmas ornament from the outer branch of a sugar maple. The hornets had been busy all summer hunting caterpillars and making paper, expanding both their population and their home. I had a metropolis of predatory insects for a neighbor and I never knew it.

The boys and I had collected basking garter snakes below the nest. Annie had grazed her horse on the lush grass that grew along the path between the wall and the pasture fence. We had chased an assortment of balls down the path. Apparently, none of us ever raised our heads.

When the leaves fell the hornet nest stood stark against the setting sun. It looked about eighteen-inches long, tapered on either end, gray as the winter sky. I knew from experience that the new queens wintered in mouse holes and crevices and that any hornet that remained in the nest had been killed by frost. I wanted to filet the nest, to have the boys feel the texture of hornet paper and see the horizontal layers of brood cells that the paper covered, each cell a perfect hexagon.

Although by November most of the cells would be empty, we’d still find a number of pupa, larva, eggs, and incipient adults, one per cell, frozen in death by sudden climatic change, locked in place like transitory fossils.

But there was no way I would climb above the stonewall and out among the tiny limbs to retrieve the nest. I’d need help. A cherry picker and a line crew would be ideal. But then about a week ago, an unexpected ally arrived.

As I lunched in the dining room and gazed mindlessly out the window, I noticed a pair of black wings flicking in and out on either side of the nest. A crow, standing precariously on the spindlybranches, tore off pieces of hornet paper, which floated like confetti into the pasture. When the hole was large enough, the bird began to eat the frozen Hornets. Although skunks and raccoons routinely raid ground wasp nests in late autumn, I had never heard of a crow, or any species of bird, ripping open a November hornet nest.

Eventually, a second crow appeared and began to pester the first, who greedily tried to fly off with a larger disc of cells. The crow dropped the disc and I retrieved it.

Without risk of being stung, the boys were able to see the inner workings of a hornet nest, and I became reacquainted with serendipity.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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