“Bringing the outdoors in”, is often a decorator term that means using natural materials for home decorating and design. It is not uncommon for people in West Virginia to collect all kinds of natural wonders, often it is the delicate paper wasp nest.
Over the years I have been fascinated with the beauty of the things in nature here in the hardwood forest. I often take photos of mushrooms,flowers, and plants that grow on the forest floor. I collect birds nests and nuts that fall from oak and walnut trees. Yet, the most intricate of all the natural finds is the summer home of the paper wasp. I have often had friends and family members who have displayed them with pride in their homes and businesses.
The nests are made up of chewed up wood pulp and wasp saliva. The pulp is placed in repeated thin layers around a central core of cells that are the home to all of the wasps larva. It is their home for only one summer season. A good fall frost will kill off not only the larva but also the mature wasps living inside. Fall rain and winter snow are deadly to a wasp nest. Water of any kind will slowly deteriorate the nest before spring. So the challenge of capturing a nest before winter is tough.The goal of the collector is to keep the delicate paper and cells in tact and preserve the nest for the future. It is possible to bag (cover with a trash bag and tie it off) a live nest to try to collect it, but the risk of being stung multiple times makes this way of collection dangerous. Wasps are territorial and will defend their home with hundreds of swarming stinging insects if you threaten their home.
Over the years I have heard several stories of why people collect the nests. Some used them in homeopathic medications, some collect them for display, while others use them to ward off other wasps from building near their homes. I have never tried the fallowing remedy or used a nest to ward off other wasps but I will share these unique stories anyway and let you be the judge of if they are worth the effort.
It was my friend and horse trainer, Red who was the first person who explained to me that he used the paper wasp nest in his treatments for horses and other farm animals. If an animal got a injury that needed to have medication applied to the wound he would make a poultice with a wasp nest as part of the mixture. The paper was torn way from the nest placed into a bowl and crushed with a mortar and pestle.Other items for the poultice was added like leaves, oils and liquids, then mixed with the paper until it became thick and pasty. Then the mixture was applied to the wound. I don’t think the paper had any medicinal qualities other than as a suspension for other ingredients. With the mixture formed into a paper paste I think it would be easier to handle and be applied like a compress. I have never attempted to use a nest this way but it sounds like it would have been easy to make for our forefathers .
The logic of using an old paper wasp nest to ward off other nest building wasps is based on the territorial nature of wasps and hornets. It is rare to observe two nests close together because of in-fighting between swarms of wasps. It is believed that if a dead nest is kept in place, or a artificial nest is placed on a porch, it will prevent more nest building just by being seen by other wasps. The information found online says an artificial nest will keep other wasps from building about 200 feet from where it is hung. So if you can keep an old nest dry, it would be possible to reuse the nest as a natural chemical free wasp repellent.
Finally, The most common of all the uses for the delicate paper wasp nest is for decoration. I have found that the owners of the nests love the outdoors and the wildlife of West Virginia. They often have wild stories about how the nest was collected and who got the nest down from some far fetched branch. Often the nests are treated like a trophy, a physical reminder of a courageous adventure up a tree, where a person is face to face with what could be a live nest full of bees.
A friend of mine, Carrie Shupp, shared with me a the story of her cousin climbing a tree, 20 feet in the air, to cut a nest free one fall day. Without ropes or safety equipment her female cousin shimmied up a tree to cut a basket ball size nest free in the canopy of a hardwood tree. With nothing but a hand saw she slowly cut the branch that the nest was attached to and brought the nest back down in her mouth. I am sure I would have passed out from just the thought of getting stung in the face, but this young woman was not worried at all. Not all of the stories I have heard are quite as dramatic as this one, some are just about fallen trees that have huge nests hidden in them. Other friends have told of having nests in bushes behind barns where they are a danger to animals and people.The farmer shared with me that he sprayed the nest with chemicals and left it to dry for a few weeks. Then cut it free from the brush and brought it into the barn to show it off as a prize of the war between man and bees.
Every story is different, but each is about our relationship to nature. Some tails show man triumphant over the simple danger of a stinging bug. Others are about the challenge to gather the delicate paper as if it was a treasure worth risking our lives for. Some are about how they are needed for keeping animals and people healthy and how they are coveted as a tool for healing. Other stories are about the danger and the thrill of the capture. I don’t think any other items collected in the forest causes such a strong emotional reaction. These simple homes are loved and hated in equal measure, making a paper wasp nest a unique and fascinating conversation piece in a home, barn or office.
I suggest that if you ever have the chance to own or collect a paper wasp nest that you take a little time to preserve the nest. Most people will suggest varnishing the nest but I don’t like to change the color of the nest with varnish so instead I use clear flat spray paint. Making sure not to saturate the outside of the nest to much. Let the nest dry and mount in a high dry corner of a room. Then share the wonderful story of how the nest came to be in your home and let people share their feelings about wasps and their nest with you. The nest will keep for many years if they are kept dry and away from curious pets and children.
They are beautiful. My wife often reminds me that “they built that with their mouths” as I find small versions during D-I-Y projects when I’m loaded with tools. I can imagine trying to capture one, but only when I was younger. Thanks for the interesting stories surrounding these dimple marvels of nature.