When I was growing up I used to sometimes see these huge black and white hornets which were bigger than my thumb (although I guess my adult thumb is bigger). These monochromatic monsters were bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculate). They live across North America from Alaska to Texas, from Nova Scotia to California.
“Bald-faced” means shameless and undisguised (it is a very good phrase for 2016). These are shamelessly undisguised wasps. They are beautiful, in a sort of nightmarish alien shocksoldier way, with cream-colored mouths and ivory abdominal markings contrasting against a midnight black body with purple iridescence. They have matte black legs and smoke-colored wings. Adult wasps are 19 millimetres (0.75 in) in length and the queens are even larger. Dolichovespula maculate is not a true hornet, but rather a sort of yellowjacket wasp—predatory wasps of the genus genera Vespula.
Like the terrifying giant hornet, bald-faced hornets are predatory carnivores. They smash into the hives of other hymenoptera (like lovable honey big-hearted bees) and gobble up all of the bees, larvae, and honey. They aren’t just chaotic hunters: they are also weirdly omnivorous. Wikipedia says “They have been observed consuming meat, spiders, fruit and insects. Adults will also drink flower nectar.” What the heck? That sounds like a banquet for dark elves!
The creatures are eusocial. They band together in a hive of 300-700 individuals. Their nests are built of disturbing grey-yellow paper-type material which seems like it was excreted by a Steven King monster (which actually seems like a pretty good description for the bald-faced hornet). You are probably curious about where this bruiser falls on the Schmidt Pain Index. Although the wasps are bigger than their close cousins the yellowjackets, both creatures score the same SPI number: 2.0 (exactly in the middle of the four point scale). They also are tied with honeybees (which are smaller but pack a potent one-time-use wallop. The description of a bald-faced hornet sting is particularly poetic and sounds like a restaurant’s blurb for an autumn pie or a painful cup of coffee. According to the pain index, the sting of Dolichovespula maculate is “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” I am glad I gave these characters a wide berth when I was growing up…but I am glad I saw them too. They are intense animals.