Before beekeeper Conrad Bérubé headed into a wooded area on Vancouver Island with some colleagues last year on a mission to destroy a nest of Asian giant hornets, he made a few additions to his usual uniform of a protective suit, headgear and work gloves.
He took along a Kevlar vest, chainsaw braces and two extra pairs of pants to protect himself from the potentially deadly stings of insects that have become known as “murder hornets.”
Even all of that wasn’t enough to completely protect him as he approached the nest and sucked the hornets up with a vacuum.
“In our mutual frustration, the hornets expressed theirs by stinging me across the legs where the fabric had tightened as I squatted down,” recalled Mr. Bérubé, who was stung seven times.
Mr. Bérubé, who was among a group of local beekeepers B.C.’s chief apiculturist recruited last September to track down and snuff out the nest, is one of the few people in North America with first-hand experience of the Asian giant hornet.
The hornets were recently spotted in Washington State, fuelling concerns they could re-emerge in B.C. this spring and threaten honeybees there, and spread into neighbouring Alberta.
Experts have said the risk the hornets will establish themselves in Western Canada is low, although their impact would be dire, and officials in B.C. are watching for signs of their return. Alberta’s chief beekeeper is also assessing the potential risk in that province, which has a significant beekeeping industry and is home to 40 per cent of Canada’s honeybees.
Asian giant hornets hadn’t been seen in North America until they were found on Vancouver Island last September, when provincial apiculturist Paul van Westendorp heard reports of unusual hornets at beekeeper’s hives in Nanaimo.
Mr. Van Westendorp contacted the B.C. Invasive Species Council to come up with a game plan and enlisted the Nanaimo Beekeepers Club. The club contacted Mr. Bérubé, a former member who was familiar with yellow jacket extraction techniques and would become the “trigger man” of the operation.
The beekeepers began their search on a wooded path off a local park. Asian giant hornets are forest-dwellers that nest underground, making them difficult to find. The hornets found the beekeepers first, stinging a club member in the chest.
Mr. Bérubé and the other beekeepers were armed with carbon monoxide spray, off-the-shelf hornet killer and a hand vacuum for collecting specimens.
Mr. Bérubé, a provincial environmental protection officer with decades of experience with bee and hornet species throughout the world, said he had never experienced anything like this.
"I cautioned [the other beekeepers] to remain at a safe distance while I approached the nest in the hopes of collecting some specimens,” he said.
“Not ever having experienced this before, I didn't realize that they were too big to fit into the nozzle."
The rest of the beekeepers hit the nest with the carbon monoxide, knocking out the hornets. They began removing the stunned insects by hand, bottling them to send to researchers and museums for analysis.
It took two hours to collect about 250 specimens. Then Mr. Bérubé said the team “drenched the nest with the whole can of the wasp foam” and dispatched the survivors by “whacking them with a stick.”
The hornets’ lancets pierced through multiple layers of Mr. Bérubé’s protective gear, including his thick leather work gloves. After the encounter, Mr. Bérubé said he pulled a quarter-inch long lancet out of one of his fingers. He said after all the stings he was in pain for the next 24 hours, which he compared to the flu.
Mr. Bérubé echoed invasive species experts who have played down the risk of the hornets becoming established in North America, although he said it can’t be ignored.
The concern now is whether any more Asian giant hornets are hibernating or establishing underground nests in B.C. At this time of year, queens would emerge only occasionally to feed, making them difficult to notice. If they produce offspring, it might not be obvious until July, when the adult worker hornets will emerge in swarms looking for food.
Asian giant hornets are considered apex predators and can decimate bee populations, meaning they could devastate local ecosystems and apiaries if they they establish colonies.
Apiarists who keep domestic bees say that while invasive species are a threat to their hives, they are not overly worried about the Asian giant. Most of Canada’s apiaries are in the Prairies, while the hornets have been spotted only in the Pacific Northwest.
Vivian Butz Hurn of Butz Apiaries in Carnwood, Alta., said Prairie winters would be a deterrent. “The threat to beekeeping in Alberta would be dependent on the susceptibility of the hornet to harsh winter conditions,” Ms. Butz Hurn said. “Hopefully, it can still be eradicated in B.C.”
The Asian giant hornet is unlikely ever to pose a significant risk to domestic bees in Alberta, said Michael Paradis of Paradis Honey in Girouxville, Alta. They would not survive “wherever the ground turns white,” he said, and a single frost could wipe them out. Despite the widespread coverage of the hornet and its possible impact, Mr. Paradis said beekeepers’ greatest problems are the overuse of pesticides and invasive species that are already established.
Mr. Paradis said that these invasive species include insects like tracheal mites, as well as larger creatures. “Raccoons are starting to be a problem in in Western Canada,” Mr. Paradis said. “They’ve never been here before, but they’ve managed to hitchhike their way around on trucks.”
Human transportation allows invasive species to spread to areas never thought possible, he said. While the Prairies are a long way from the hornet nest in Nanaimo, “they didn’t get across the Pacific by flying,” he said, “they spread with human aid.”
Andrew Gluck, general manager of Honeybee Centre, an apiary that pollinates blueberry, cranberry and raspberry crops in the Fraser Valley, said operations continue as usual.
“We have seen no concerning issues with this species whatsoever,” Mr. Gluck said, but added, “that could change in the future.”
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