Crisp days of raking leaves - HA! Memories of those take me back to our years of living in Montana and Idaho where great dry masses of fallen leaves were as most of us think. I reveled in the swish and crunch of walking through them, loved raking them and being buried within the huge piles.
Here, fall can be a gooey, messy time of year. All those beautifully-colored leaves do eventually fall and with our perpetual rains they form a slick, heavy, sodden mass on the ground, which few bother to even try to rake up. Cheery fall colors and glowing fields of pumpkins and corn stalks slowly give way to wet, rotted leavings - some of which are internal. Unlike spring, with its bright cheerful awakenings, fall is a time of farewells for many of us. Farewell to summer, for sure, but also ever-shortening daylight, colder temperatures, thoughts and activities that often slow down and turn inward...
So, I was not too surprised when I glimpsed the nest and found it ragged and deserted. All my "good intentions" regarding it during the summer came rushing back. Discovering it fully-formed and humming with activity during our glorious late summer days, I checked on it each time I passed.
But I was busy with gardening, coming from or going to the mail box, running those countless errands like we all do. I fully intended to study it carefully, meant to photograph it and its inhabitants in detail, pretty much failed to get any of that accomplished...
But it was still there, gracefully hanging from the branch as it had from its beginning. This time, I took the time to study it closely and what an intricate work of art it was!
Sometime last spring, a fertile queen paper wasp emerged from hibernation and began the process of turning raw wood into this sturdy paper home. She used her mandibles to scrape bits of wood fiber from fences, logs, or even cardboard.
She then broke the wood fibers down in her mouth, using saliva and water to weaken them. Flying to her chosen nest site - the thin branch of this Kousa Dogwood - she added the soft paper pulp to it for support. As the wet cellulose fibers dried, they became the strong paper buttress from which she would suspend her nest.
The nest itself was comprised of hexagonal cells in which the young developed. The queen protected the brood cells by building a paper envelope, or cover, around them. She raised the first generation of workers on her own.
After they emerged, those workers collected food while she switched to only laying eggs. The larvae were probably fed pre-chewed caterpillars, while the adults fed on nectar. The nest expanded as the colony grew in number, with new generations of workers constructing new cells as needed, until it reached its final size. Many nests are typically small, usually a few dozen workers, but may contain as many as 100.
As fall approaches, colonies produce males and new queens, which leave the nest to mate. After mating, the new queens burrow into the ground where they spend the winter. All workers, the males, and the old queen perish around November, leaving any young behind in the nest to also die. Old nests degrade naturally over the winter months, so each spring new ones must be constructed by the new queens as the process begins anew.
It has been nearly a year now since my second-oldest sister entered the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia. None of us imagined she would be gone before Christmas. They say it takes a full year, at least, to begin to adjust to such losses, but who are "they" and what is a year when I'd known her for nearly 70? This sister was 14 when I was born, left for college when I was 4, married and moved away when I was 7. With the age difference and distance, it might seem that we'd have nothing in common, but that would be wrong. We shared a love of sewing, cooking, reading, the outdoors, the arts, and American Indian history and culture. She was the one who showed and explained to me all the parts of a living grasshopper and how to fish for trout in a cold mountain stream. She and her family came back to visit every summer and the memories of those times are priceless. We kept in touch - not as often as we should have, probably - with letters, phone calls, and occasionally emails. She was the one who always said "Oh, I intended to call you before now, but I just didn't get around to it..." Yeah, I know how that goes.
A cold wind rustled the trees and a light rain began. I tossed the ripped-open wasp's nest into the woods and smiled. True, I never did study and photograph it while it was at its peak of activity, but its remnants were still beautiful and intricate. Perhaps I'll get another chance - for I'm remembering that new queen tucked safely away just waiting for spring.
"Don't cry because it's over.
Smile because it happened."
Other fall meanderings: