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Bee—Where Is Thy Sting?

Tuesday, August 24, 1999 at 11:05 AM

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Thousands of buzzing colonies of hornets have been quietly growing across Ohio since last Spring. It's an annual process that sees the creation of gray, paper hives attached to eaves, growing inside large pipes, and hanging from tree branches. For many people, the appearance of a hornet's nest is a thing of fear and the possibility of danger. But the sting of such insects actually holds the potential for good, as 90.3's David C. Barnett learned one recent evening.

Paul Penny- Basically, we had not noticed this before and my wife happened to notice it up there. That was about a week ago.

DCB- Paul Penny’s half-hearted smile reflects surprise and concern as he stares at an object hanging from a branch about 15 feet in the air, just behind the backboard of a basketball hoop in the backyard of his suburban Cleveland home. As the sky darkens it’s harder to make out this gray-colored object that looks like a big basketball, slightly deflated. Dressed in tee-shirt and shorts, Paul Penny unconsciously hugs himself and turns to a man named Russell Lamp, who’s here to take the nest away.

PP- One of my fears, after we discovered the nest was that my boys who like to play basketball out here might accidentally hit it.

Russell Lamp- That’s a legitimate fear, because not all shots are good shots. I could see a ball rebounding into that thing and you could have had a problem.

DCB- Lamp says the denizens of this nest are commonly called bald-faced or white-faced hornets.

RL- The scientific name is Dolis Fespula Immaculata.

DCB- Russell Lamp is an entomologist and not quite the stereotype of the guy with a tank of pesticide strapped to his back, ready to do battle with household pests. With the word “Russ” stitched on his shirt pocket and sporting a baseball cap with his company logo, Integrated Pest Control, Lamp aims a flashlight up at the nest.

RL- What I’m going to do is go up there and plug up that hole and knock that nest out with some carbon dioxide. Nature wraps this thing up in a nice little bag, except for one little hole, all I have to do is stick my thumb in that hole and I’m all set. Hopefully I don’t get stung on the thumb.

DCB- Hornets, bees, and wasps are classified as “social stinging insects” because, unlike most other insect species, they live together in large colonies marked by divisions of labor. Insect biologist Miles Guralnick says one of those jobs is defense.

Miles Guralnick- And they evolved a venom which consists of proteins and peptides and other biological materials that are exceedingly pain-producing in higher animals. And perhaps, ounce for ounce, they may be some of the most painful materials on earth.

DCB- For people who are allergic to insect stings, a dose of this venom can be fatal. But, this poison can also be a life-saver. Miles Guralnick is the president of Pennsylvania-based Vespa Laboratories which chemically treats the venom from stinging insects delivered to them by collection experts such as Russell Lamp.

MG- We’re involved in working with these insect venom proteins from which we’ve developed therapeutic treatments which can be used to help treat these insect sting-allergic patients.

RL- Venoms are made into vaccines to desensitize people before they get stung.

DCB- Hive and insect collecting makes up about 40% of Russell Lamp’s Toledo-based business. He likes to call it “insect recycling” and he figures his science background gives him a leg up in his work.

RL- You have more of an understanding of the insects and why somebody’s having a problem versus somebody who just goes out there and says “There’s a bug. Let’s step on it or spray it.” I know the life histories and many times there’s methods of preventing a problem without spraying.

DCB- Which is exactly what’s required for the insects that Lamp collects for vaccine production. Any trace of pesticides will render the insects useless for recycling. Even if a homeowner tried shooting a garden hose at the hive, it’s possible that mold and bacteria could form within the structure and taint the hornets.

Lamp grabs a pair of branch clippers and the nozzle of a hose connected to a tank of carbon dioxide on the back of his pick-up truck. The coolness of a late-summer night is an advantage—there aren’t any stray hornets remaining outside the nest as Lamp quickly, but deliberately, slides the CO2 hose up to the entry hole.

Peter Guralnick of Vespa Labs won’t give a dollar amount, but he says that Russell Lamp is well-compensated for his labors. This is not work for the faint-hearted. Guralnick recalls with uneasy laughter an assignment where he got some 30 stings, despite wearing protective gear. Lamp figures he’s been stung 60,000 times over the course his life.

RL- I’m a professional beekeeper and I prefer to work honey bees barehanded, if I can. And most professonal beekeepers will work them that way due to the fact that if you wear all of that heavy protective equipment, look at the weather we had the last couple of weeks. 90 - 95 degrees. You can’t work ten hours with a suit on; you wouldn’t last an hour.

DCB- Lamp clambers down the ladder, his arms full with the hose, the clippers and the nest dangling from a piece of branch.

RL- You can see that it’s made of paper—that’s wood fiber. It’s come off of people’s decks and houses that aren’t painted. And here come the hornets…

DCB- He carefully rips the nest open, revealing a complex honeycomb-like structure as the dormant insects fall into a holding box. Some of the cells are filled with wriggling larvae that will be separated and allowed to grow to full maturity. The effects of the CO2 are starting to wear off and some groggy hornets are starting to come back to life.

RL- It’s time to put the lid on.... Hey, why are you guys backing away?

PP- We want to give you room to put the lid on...[laughter]

DCB- Russell Lamp packs away his paraphernalia and gets ready to move on to the next job. There are two more hives to collect: one at ten o’clock, and one at midnight. When he’s through for the evening, he’ll freeze the hornets and ship them by courier to Vespa Labs where a substance of pain will transformed into a substance that can save lives. Before taking off into the night, Lamp slides his black and yellow business card into Paul Penny’s hand.

RL- Paul, if I can ever help you in the future, remember—don’t call me; give me a buzz.

DCB- For Infohio, I’m David C. Barnett, in Cleveland.

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