It’s a scene played out time and time again at dung heaps and trash cans across the country: a fly, bristly and furtive, creeps slowly along, sponging up goo with its weird, jointed mouth, nervously sipping a nasty brew of fermenting who-knows-what. Ready to take off at a moment’s notice, the fly uses its wrap-around eyes to scan the surrounding landscape for hungry birds, jumping spiders, errant swatters, and the like. It utilizes hundreds of lenses to create a mosaic of images that it filters through and interprets in the tiny cluster of nerve cells it calls a brain.

Drawn toward a particularly rank gob of glop, the fly turns, making its way toward its tasty goal, when – WHAM! A blur of black, white and fly tumbles and bumps and then stabilizes, and, with a fading buzz, the fly is gone.

Like a towel-boy being taken out by a defensive end, the fly never knows what hit it, falling victim to that king of the Dumpster, the bald-faced hornet.

Unlike its European cousin the yellow jacket, the bald-faced hornet doesn’t bother with ice-cream drippings or the discarded remains of someone’s Mountain Dew. It comes for the meat, and fly is definitely on the menu.

The bald-faced is one of several local wasp species that make their living on the hunt. While other stinging insects like honeybees and bumbles are out frequenting flowers for sugary nectar, the heavily built hornet is out cruising for victims. It can make a meal of flies, bees and other insects by using a kick-in-the-door approach that looks like a cross between a kamikaze nose dive and a quarterback blitz.

Once captured, the hornet’s hapless victims are quickly dispatched and dismembered using powerful mandibles that make up a sizable portion of the white face that gives the insect its name. Back at the nest, the prime cuts of fly become food for the growing larvae. The white, nearly featureless young are fattened on captured insects in form-fitting cells similar to those found in a honeycomb. For hornets, the cells are crafted from chewed wood pulp and specialized saliva that dry to form a paper-like material that is light, strong and weather-resistant. As the colony grows, nonbreeding workers add to the dimensions of their communal home, creating roundish, gray hives that can be as large as a basketball.

After laying eggs and raising workers throughout the summer, the queen will lay a final batch of fertile eggs that will ultimately become the queens of next season. The new matriarch will overwinter in cracks and crevices and start new colonies when the weather warms.

Taxonomically, the bald-faced hornet is not a true hornet, being more closely related to the yellow jacket and other heavy-bodied wasps. It is easily distinguished from other insects by its black-and-white color pattern and heavy build.

While there are several species of solitary wasps that use their stingers to subdue spiders and other prey, bald-faced hornets generally don’t opt for venomous weaponry. Instead they use their six legs in vigorous hand-to-hand combat, quickly subduing even stinging prey like honeybees and yellow jackets with their larger body mass and crushing mouthparts. The hefty hunters seem to prefer size and strength to stealth and accuracy. I have watched in amused wonder as the would-be fly killers slammed themselves repeatedly into – no joke – the broad side of a barn as they charged in full throttle to nab some quicker-than-average prey.

Bald-faced hornets reserve their stings for defense. Unlike a worker bee, who dies soon after stinging due to the tissue damage caused by the loss of the stinger, individual hornets can sting repeatedly, delivering several injections of searing venom to would-be attackers and careless softball players.

While their reputation as merciless stingers is well-earned, they are aggressive only when threatened, and their habit of snacking on flies has made them welcome in my yard. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t want a bald-faced hornet’s nest on my front porch, but I have to admire the little animal’s no-holds-barred approach to life. Any inch-long organism that can make a grown man run down the street screaming, warrants a little respect in my book.