Take Me Outside: What Can You See During “Stick Season”?

Published: 11/26/2022 10:50:39

Modified: 11/26/2022 10:48:14 am

November is sometimes referred to as “cane season,” a time of bare branches. But many treasures were discovered after the leaves fell off trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.

When you step outside, look up at the deciduous trees (the ones that are shedding their leaves). You can see a gray squirrel’s nest wedged in the fork of a tree. Like many people in New Hampshire, these squirrels have both summer and winter homes. They occupy a tree hollow in winter, which offers better protection from cold and snow. But in summer they use twigs, leaves, grasses and moss to build and use a nest called drey. This is where the females raise their young.

Finding red squirrels’ spherical nests is not so easy because they are hidden in the tops of evergreen trees. Composed of leaves, grasses and strips of bark, they are denser than those of the gray squirrel. Red squirrels prefer to eat seeds from cones, while acorns make up a large part of gray squirrels’ diet.

Bare trees can hold another surprise – the elongated, gray nest of bald-faced hornets. These nests are often wrongly attributed to paper wasps, but these insects make their nests under the eaves of buildings. Both wasps and hornets are colonial insects like honey bees, with different roles for different members of the colony.

The queen of a hornet colony begins nest building in spring. She lays fertilized eggs she has carried over the winter in the hexagonal cells of the nest. In a week, the eggs hatch, the queen feeds the larvae for 10-12 days, then they pupate. After another 12 days, sterile “workers” hatch. Your task is to bring food to the queen and the hatching young and to enlarge the nest.

To gather building materials, workers remove tiny bits of wood from branches, unpainted fence posts, and even firewood. With sharp mandibles, they chew the pieces of wood, mix them with their saliva, and then spread the soft pulp over the growing nest structure. The nests look and feel like paper as they are made of wood fibers like most of our papers. When you look at a nest up close, you look at the patterns of the swirling paper and the inner layer of cells that contain the eggs and the developing larvae.

Eggs laid in late summer develop into males and non-sterile females, which disperse and mate. Only fertilized females survive the winter to start the cycle all over again the following year and hide somewhere in a sheltered crevice.

With no hornets overwintering in the nest, it’s safe and fascinating to examine this intricate colonial house when you find one that has fallen from a tree. As you admire the architecture of the beehive, remember that it was created by inch-long creatures using their mouths and legs, and a new one is created every year.

A much smaller wasp is responsible for a structure found on highbush blueberries. The blueberry stalk gall wasp lays its eggs on the branches of blueberry bushes. The plant responds to egg placement by growing abnormal tissue and forming a kidney-shaped gall around the eggs. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the inner wall of the chamber. The bile continues to grow in response to the damage, eventually becoming hard and woody. The larvae overwinter in the gall, pupate in it and hatch in spring.

Another type of bile is found on goldenrod stalks. They are formed by the larvae of a tiny fly called the goldenrod gallfly. In the summer, the fly larvae eat into the stalk of the goldenrod, forming a feeding chamber.

The plant responds by forming a rounded growth around the larva where it overwinters. If there is no hole in the gall, you can imagine a little larva snuggling into the cozy space, safe from the storms of winter. In the spring, it pupates in the gall and emerges as an adult.

These are just a few examples of things to see when examining bare branches, so make the most of “stick season” and see what you can find.