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  • Writer's picturePatrick Dawkins

Wasp Hunter Needs Beekeepers’ Help

Ever thought that wasps were good for nothing? Have you wondered why they were put on the planet? If you are a beekeeper you might have a particularly high distain for the winged predators as they compete with and prey on your stock. However, there is one man in New Zealand who has made a living from them, but his job is getting harder and he is turning to beekeepers for help…

German wasp, Vespula germanica head side-on – a complete yellow band behind the eye.

“If beekeepers are seeing German wasps robbing honey or killing bees, or just floating around the trees, I’d be really keen to hear from them,” John Eason says.

“I don’t need to know where the nest is, I can usually find it myself.”

The Golden Bay-based wasp collector and owner of Waspol NZ Ltd has spent 27 years searching for and capturing Vespula germanica, aka German wasps, as well as collecting pollen from trees and sending them to labs around the world to be used for immunotherapy. That is, desensitisation treatments for those allergic of wasps stings, or with pollen allergies. In recent years Asian paper wasps have also been sought after for the same purposes by Eason.

“I’m the only person in New Zealand who loves wasps. I get a fair amount of stick,” Eason says.

“They know me too. If I’m sitting around at a BBQ they come and see me. I have a theory that, if I have been collecting that day, they can smell me, from the venom that might have accumulated on my beesuit.”

Common wasp, Vespula vulgaris head side on - a black mark behind the eye.

Once he finds a nest of a suitable size Eason has a vacuum device to suck the insects out, which he then freezes whole until he has enough to send off to labs, primarily in the USA or UK.

“All we want is the whole insect. We do not extract the venom. That is a highly technical process which has to be done in full laboratory conditions,” Eason explains.

When he started his business in the late 1990s – after an old school friend contacted him from America to see if he could supply some wasps – large germanica wasp nests were far more common. Now, due to the use of Vespex wasp bait, and stormy weather in some key North Island nesting sites, the nests of substance are hard to come by and thus Eason is hoping the general public, including beekeepers, can help him identify German wasp nests which he can practically access.

His is a ‘Has wasp vacuum, will travel’ advertisement, meaning if a German wasp nest is big enough he is willing to travel anywhere in New Zealand to get it. They do have to be within 500m of vehicle access though.

German wasp, Vespula germanica - black dots on the abdomen, which are usually (but not always) separate from the black rings.

Happy hunting grounds in the past have been his Golden Bay location at the top of the South Island, as well as Northland and South Head in North Auckland. Warmer climates mean wasp nests can survive winter and so they are then generally large. South Head is a particularly conducive area, with the sand making easy digging, plenty of dune lakes to provide insects water and the hunting of fallow deer common, meaning gut bags and carcasses are left behind to provide wasps ample protein.

Auckland’s inclement weather last year has wiped many queen wasps out though, and so now Eason is having to look further afield. He believes the Kapiti Coast and Wairarapa could hold some big nests.

He cannot collect from any areas where Vespex has been used recently, for risk of contaminating the samples. Just as importantly, he does not need common wasps, and so has some tips to differentiate the germanica and vulgaris (common) species.

“The best way to determine German or common is to look on the tops of the trees as they are flying around. The Germans work over the tops of trees hunting. Common wasps will be inside the trees. The definitive way to tell the difference if you have the wasp in front of you is the general band on the side of the face. The Germanica are much brighter yellow and not as hairy, but the general band on the side of the face is an unbroken yellow. The vulgaris, or common, wasp tend to be hairier, slightly smaller and the general band has a black smudge in the middle of it.

Then there are the markings on the back of the wasps.

“The dots on their back, on either side of the arrow, are always fully separate on Germanica. On the common wasp they can be separate to some degree, but there will always be at least one band that has joined up dots and the dots will not be as defined, they will be a bit clumpy,” Eason explains.

He asks beekeepers to try and get a photo of them if possible and with that, and a chat on the phone, he can usually determine if he can help and the required travel is worthwhile.

Germanica nests can get as large as a truck, but the biggest he has seen, many years ago now, was as big as the front section of his truck. From it he harvested 32lbs of live wasps, “that’s 64 sandwich-size snap-lock bags”.

As for stings, well he has had his fair few, and like beekeepers he manages them a lot easier after so long in the job. He is quick to know when strife is nearby and can usually correct the situation after just one sting he says. It’s usually because a zip on his suit has not been fully closed. That suit is imported from the USA and has several layers of material, as the common beesuits here did not provide enough protection.

Common wasp, Vespula vulgaris - black dots on the abdomen, which are less defined and more likely joined to the black rings.

While German wasps are his primary target, Eason also wants people to alert him to any areas high in paper wasp populations.

“They love tree protectors, they love silage pit tyres. Those are the sort of areas where we are after them. The one, or two, or three nests on someone’s eves is not worth the effort to collect them,” he says.

It’s a unique way to make a living in New Zealand and now he hopes to help beekeepers who might be having hives hindered by particularly troublesome German wasp populations make theirs.

“I am trying to throw the door wide open to find new sites.”

John Eason, owner of Waspol NZ, can be contacted via phone 020 4007 9983 or email waspolnz@gmail.com


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