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Hornets & Tawny Owls

My journey to work at YewView is considerably longer now, than when I lived in Lichfield. This means I am no longer spending one day a week there, at least during the winter when it is a dark and, often wet, drive there and back. Luckily, at this time of the year, it is quieter wildlife-wise, and I can undertake some footage captures and work remotely from home.

One thing I have been waiting to do, though, is to remove a large hornet nest from our Tawny box. We have filmed Strix and Aluco breeding here for the last few years and it is around November that the pair return to check out the box and start bonding again for the next season. Tawnies breed very early in the year and I like to have the box cleared, tidied and ready to go by November.

The huge hornet nest has been active up until very recently. These nests die down in late Autumn and are not used again , so can be removed. This week I could see that there was no action, so I decide to head up the ladder, check it out, and remove it if they had all gone. Tentatively, I removed the lid. Luckily, there was no sign of any hornets and I was able to look inside..... oh wow! The nest all but filled this large box...

The nest had completely covered the camera....

Running a saw around the edge, I was able to release it and lift it out of the box...

Carrying it carefully back down the ladder, i was able to take a closer look

A truly incredible piece of insect architecture, this nest is a marvel of nature’s engineering. The entire structure nest is constructed of paper‑like material made from chewed wood fibres mixed with saliva. The 'stripes' of different colours you can see represent each of the different hornet contributions as the wood fibre is collected from all different sources. The nest is composed of tiers of open-celled combs within a thick, multilayered outer shell. The tiers are separated by column-like structures. This structure is also meant to aid ventilation. About half way through building, they started to close up the entrance to the nest box. This hole is around 14cm diameter. They completely closed the entrance, leaving just a small hole to allow the workers in and out. Guards patrolled this entrance, ensuring nothing raided the nest. It was incredible to watch, until they built the nest over the camera!

Each colony of hornets lasts only one year. Queens are the only members of the colony able to survive the winter. In April or May, the queen selects a suitable location and begin to build, constructing a small, round nest and begin laying eggs, gathering food and raising her offspring. The first offspring are sterile females. These workers take over the duties of enlarging and maintaining the nest, foraging for food and caring for the larvae while the queen takes on the role of just producing more eggs.

Peak worker population is 100 to 400 hornets by the end of the summer. Males and new queens produced in late summer leave the nest to mate. The fertilised queens hibernate and begin the cycle again the following year. The remainder of the workers, the old queen and the males die of old age or when temperatures begin to drop.

In each of these cells , an egg would have been laid and a larvae would develop, pupate and emerge. The regularity of size and distribution was astounding!

The tiers and columns are clear in this photo.

I have brought this beautiful structure home and it will hang in my workshop!

I returned back up to the nest box and cleared the remains of the nest, scraping it all from the camera. I had to remove one of the cameras and the internal lights, to be repaired.

Tawnies like to have a deep layer of substrate at the bottom of the box, so I cleared out last years and put new bark chippings and dry leaves inside. The external perch and 'porch' had rotted , so I built a new one and fixed this. Over the years, I have found that this set-up works really well for adults to perch and also when owlets emerge.

Once, I was happy with everything, I checked the 2 existing cameras.

The camera on the outside is live streaming. It will record any visits. One internal camera, looks at the entrance and the lower, internal camera will be added in the next few weeks, along with the repaired lights.

I have connected the Yew View camera system to my one at home. Although much slower to connect, it means I can monitor the cameras from home. I kept checking the camera and was delighted to capture this clip just a few nights later.....

To have both male and female visiting is just fantastic... as if they were waiting for me to sort it out for them! I am so relieved to see them both looking so well. After a failed brood earlier in the year, in this box, they appeared with 2 grown owlets later in the season, so had bred somewhere else after their early eggs failed. I really hope they breed back in here in 2024.

Later that night, Aluco returned to have another check of the box.

I am keeping my finger crossed and planning a box here at Gwyllt Hollow asI can hear them calling here too!


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