Rockford Tree City USA reveals hidden trophies

by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL

Rockford Squire reporter Cliff Hill displays two trophy bald-faced hornets’ nests.

Spring, summer, fall, and winter people take to the out-of-doors in search of nature’s bounty. Some are seeking records and others hope to find something very scarce and extraordinary.

Squire Editor Beth Altena is extremely talented at locating delicious morel mushrooms every spring, Rockford’s Tom Healy is a World Record Holder fisherman, and Independent Bank’s Fred Agate knows a thing or two about taking trophy “bucks” (the four legged deer kind, that is) when hunting in the fall.

Up close and personal is a bald-faced hornet, a fierce defender of its nest.

For our part, the Hills, take to the highways and byways in late October and early November in search of bald-faced hornets’ (paper wasps) nests. Hidden from sight during the summer in the heights of leafed tree canopies, these nests reveal themselves to the human eye when the leaves begin to drop in the fall.

As winter approaches, the wasps die off – except any just-fertilized queens. These hibernate underground, under logs, or in hollow trees until spring. The nest itself is generally abandoned by winter. It will most certainly be destroyed by winter storms and, even if it remains intact, it will not be reused the following spring.

Each spring, queens that were born and fertilized at the end of the previous season emerge from hibernation and continue a cycle of beginning a new colony and building an ensuing new nest.

A picture is as close as one would want to come to an active bald-faced hornet’s nest.

Bald-faced hornets are protective of their nests and will sting repeatedly if approached for observation purposes or the nest is physically disturbed. In short, it is never considered safe to approach a bald-faced hornet’s nest as they will attack with little provocation. This is precisely why late fall or early winter is the only time we seek to attempt a capture one of these rare intact nests.

We consider ourselves lucky if we discover but one of these illusive nests each fall. Locating one is only half the battle as the next step is retrieving it from the heights of its host tree. With a saw and/or loping shears in hand, one has to scale the tree (oftentimes using extension ladders) to free the specimen.

Fool-hearty you say, well maybe, but a segment of the population views these nests as highly desirable. Some of our discoveries have found their way to biology classrooms and one was donated to the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum to be placed on display for many years. Other nests were given away to a select few. Most, however, have been sold and found a home in trophy game rooms or as part of the décor of a lakeside cabin or a wooded lodge-themed retreat.

This fall good fortune smiled on us when we discovered two pristine intact bald-faced hornets’ nests right here in downtown Rockford – Tree City USA. (They may have been in your neighborhood or your very backyard, we’ll never tell! It’s easier to apologize than ask permission, right?)

After remedial repair and preservative work, these two prized specimens are already spoken for and on display at City Antiques, on Fulton St. in Grand Rapids. This Christmas vacation, it might be worth a field trip with the kids to check them out while at the same time paying a visit to one of the most unusual antique emporiums one would hope to discover.

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