Take Me Outside: What can you see during ‘stick season’?

For the Monitor
Published: 11/26/2022 10:50:39 AM
Modified: 11/26/2022 10:48:14 AM

November is sometimes called the “stick season,” a time of stark bare branches. But many treasures have been revealed now that the leaves have dropped from trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants.

When you head outside, look up toward the canopy of deciduous trees (ones that lose their leaves). You may see a gray squirrel’s nest wedged into the crotch of a tree. Like many people in New Hampshire, these squirrels have both summer and winter dwellings. They occupy a tree cavity in winter which provides greater protection from cold and snow. But in summer, they use twigs, leaves, grasses and moss to create and utilize a nest called a drey. This is where the females raise their young.

It’s not as easy to locate the spherical nests of red squirrels because they are concealed in the tops of evergreen trees. Constructed of leaves, grasses and strips of bark, they are more dense that those of the gray squirrel. Red squirrels prefer to eat seeds from cones, whereas acorns make up a large part of the gray squirrels’ diet.

Bare trees may hold another surprise – the oblong, gray nest of bald-faced hornets. These nests are often mistakenly attributed to paper wasps, but those insects create their nests under the eaves of buildings. Both wasps and hornets are colonial insects like honey bees, with distinctive roles for different members of the colony.

The queen of a hornet colony starts the construction of the nest in the spring. She will lay fertilized eggs, which she has carried over the winter, in the hexagonal cells of the nest. In a week the eggs will hatch, the queen feeds the larvae for 10 to 12 days at which point they pupate. After another 12 days, sterile female “workers” emerge. Their job is to bring food to the queen and emerging young and to enlarge the nest.

To gather building materials, the workers strip tiny bits of wood from branches, unpainted fence posts and even firewood. Using sharp mandibles, they chew the wood pieces, mix them with their saliva and then spread the soft pulp onto the growing nest structure. The nests look and feel like paper because just like most of our paper, they are made of wood fibers. If you get a close look at a nest, check out the patterns of swirly paper and the internal layer of cells that hold the eggs and developing larvae.

Eggs laid in late summer develop into males and non-sterile females who will disperse and mate. Only fertilized females live through the winter to begin the cycle over in the coming year, hiding somewhere in a protected crevice.

No hornets overwinter in the nest so it is safe and fascinating to examine this intricate colonial home if you find one that has fallen from a tree. When you admire the architecture of the hive, remember it was made by inch-long creatures using their mouths and legs, and that a new one is created each year.

A much smaller wasp is responsible for a structure found on highbush blueberries. The blueberry stem gall wasp lays its eggs in the branches of blueberry bushes. The plant responds to the insertion of eggs 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 gall continues to grow in response to the damage and eventually becomes hard and woody. The larvae spend the winter in the gall, pupate inside and emerge in the spring.

A different type of gall can be found on goldenrod stems. They are formed by the larvae of a tiny fly called the goldenrod gall fly. In the summer the fly larva chews into the stem of the goldenrod, creating a feeding chamber.

The plant responds by forming a round growth around the larva where it overwinters. Unless there is a hole in the gall you can imagine a tiny grub nestled in the snug space, safe from the storms of winter. In the spring it will pupate inside the gall and exit as an adult.

These are just a few examples of things that can be seen by examining bare branches, so take advantage of “stick season” and see what you can find.

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