Professor harvests a prickly crop in Ocean Park: Wasps

<I>ELIZABETH LONG photo</I><BR>A vacuum hose sucks angry wasps out of the air as they hurry to the defense of their large paper nest in Ocean Park.

OCEAN PARK - Most people head in the opposite direction when they notice a wasp nest, but not Carl Roush. In fact, the Lower Columbia College biology professor will go miles out of his way for a nest.

He has been collecting the insects for 18 years, then sells them to a pharmaceutical company, Hollister-Stier, for medical purposes. The company uses the venom to make shots for people who are allergic and might go into shock from a sting.

On Thursday, Sept. 1, he was at the home of Keith and Carolyn Mahoy in Ocean Park to collect a nest of bald-faced hornets that the Mahoys had discovered in their yard.

While carefully examining the nest before he suited up in protective gear, he explained some of the life-history of the wasps.

"It (the nest) starts as golf-ball sized," he said. One queen starts the nest, usually some time in May, he explained. She lays eggs in the "cells" she has made by chewing wood, creating the initial hive. He said the wasps prefer to use cedar, but will take advantage of other woods as well. He showed the Mahoys marks on their wooden clothes line support where the wasps had chewed, making the wood rough, giving it a fuzzy texture.

The first larvae, all fed by the queen, develop into worker females. Once they mature, the queen devotes herself solely to laying eggs, while the workers tend the new larvae, expand the nest and, of course, vigorously defend it. By the second month the nest has grown to soft-ball sized.

By the third month, he said, the nest is expanding "quite rapidly," and the queen begins to lay eggs that will develop into males and other queens. A mature nest might contain as many as 600 workers.

"This nest is clearly in queen production stage," he told the Mahoys while donning the classic bee-keeper suit, complete with a mesh hood and gloves.

He warned them to stand back once he began collecting, as the wasps have a tendency to fly at faces. They are also attracted to darker colors, so his protective gear is white, making it difficult for the wasps to see him. Carolyn did one better, removing herself to the house for the duration of the collection.

Placing a clear tube connected to a vacuum near the small hole at the base of the nest, he carefully began tapping it, literally sucking the wasps out of the air as they emerged, boiling out to defend it. Within 15 minutes it was over and the nest was safe to remove.

Examining the tube, he estimated there were 50 to 60 wasps inside. He explained he would chill, then freeze them so they could be sorted. The male wasps, which could be distinguished by their curved antenna, were of no use to him. They do not have stingers and so have no venom.

Although he said the nest could be left up, he snipped the few branches holding it in place so he could show the insides of it to the Mahoys. Snipping a wedge shaped piece out of the surprisingly soft and delicate structure, he revealed the intricate interior with tiers of cells filled with the grub like larvae. He said raccoon, opossums and other animals would quickly scavenge the larvae, now that the nest was empty.

"They also make great fish bait," he said of an apparent delicacy of the animal world.

Both the Mahoys and Roush saw the collection of the nest as a win-win situation. The Mahoys got a potentially dangerous nest removed by an expert for free and Roush got to engage in his sometimes lucrative hobby, and provide a benefit for people with allergies.

"I like nature in general," said Roush. "Insects are fascinating models for studying all kinds of things."

For more information on getting a nest removed, contact Roush at (360) 578-2018.

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