This man was stung seven times by murder hornets while trying to save Vancouver Island's honeybees
The pain was like ‘red hot thumbtacks’
Conrad Berube loves bees. The Nanaimo, B.C. resident is an avid beekeeper. He runs a bee-related charity called Bees for Babar, which uses bees as "living barbed-wire fences" to keep elephants from Ghana's largest wildlife preserve from raiding neighbouring subsistence farms. He's helped many of his colleagues at B.C.'s Ministry of Environment and the neighbouring Ministry of Forests to start beekeeping, and he's somewhat of a beekeeping influencer.
"There's been a number of occasions where my colleagues have come to me and said, 'I'm interested in getting into beekeeping, should I?'" he says. "I obviously say 'Yes, of course you should!' And provide them with plans for making their own hives."
He also knows a thing or two about hornets and yellow jackets. Before he was a civil servant, he had a career as an "integrated pest management consultant, and freelance entomologist.
"I was collecting yellow jackets and what are called bald-faced hornets... for a pharmaceutical company," he says. "I would put out ads for free wasp removal, free yellow jacket removal, and people would call me up and I would go and collect the nest, and one way or the other, would separate out the females from the males, and then send the females on to the laboratory, to purify the venom."
If you're wondering, between beekeeping and wasp collection, Berube has been stung " hundreds if not thousands of times… stings are just a part of the puzzle with beekeeping."
So it makes sense that when two of his fellow Nanaimo beekeepers, John and Moufida Holubeshen, found North America's first ever "murder hornet" nest, that they would make Berube one of their first calls. Their encounter with murder hornets is the subject of the first episode of Season 2 of Farm Crime.
The murder hornet's real name is the Asian giant hornet, and their native range encompasses most of that continent, from the Russian Far East all the way to Sri Lanka. Murder hornet's prey consists of other medium-to-large sized insects. A relatively small number of hornets can decimate a beehive, and while bees in Asia have developed defence mechanisms, western honey bees have none. Berube and Holubeshens knew that if the hornets spread, it could be disastrous for Vancouver Island's bee population.
He tried to capture them. Instead he woke them up.
The trio, plus another area beekeeper named Peter Lange, went to the local woods where the Holubeshens found the hive at night, dressed in their beekeeping gear and wearing headlamps. In addition to his beekeeping gear, Berube was also wearing a kevlar vest and gauntlets, "the type that are used for chainsaw protection and/or zombie apocalypses." He also had a Dustbuster-style vacuum, which was what he'd traditionally used to collect yellow jackets, and a CO2 fire extinguisher. Because hornets don't fly at night, the group hoped to catch them unawares.
Unfortunately, Berube didn't realize exactly how big a murder hornet was. The insects were too large for the Dustbuster, and instead of capturing them, it woke them up. Berube was immediately stung four times on the inner thigh. He described the pain as being like "red hot thumbtacks." The stings also drew blood, a first for him.
Berube and company switched tactics, blasting the hornets with the fire extinguisher, which knocked them out, preserving them in alcohol. Then he'd wait. More hornets would attack. He'd blast those hornets and preserve them in alcohol. And then he'd repeat the process again. Once all the hornets were gone, they started taking out the hive itself.
When Berube eventually took his gear off, he realized he'd actually been stung three more times, and still had a lancet, part of the sting mechanism, lodged in his thumb. He says that having been repeatedly exposed to bee and wasp venom probably meant his response to being stung wasn't as severe as it could have been.
The little ditty that I use is, 'If stings have been nil, it's best to stand still, but once you've been stung, cage your eyes and just run- Conrad Berube
"Everyone's susceptibility to venom is going to be different," he says. "I don't know how much my natural disposition is, how much my exposure to venom from various insects has contributed to that. I would suspect the latter is probably more important, that there is some cross-protection from having been exposed to some closely related species... what I've read in the literature is that it's not uncommon for folks who have received ten or more stings to require some kind of medical intervention."
That said, he adds that serious sting incidents are rare, even in the murder hornets native territories. The likelihood of experiencing a serious sting incident is roughly the same as the likelihood of being struck by lightning. Murder hornets are a threat to bees, not people. Berube says that if you see them when they're foraging, they probably won't bother you, but if you're getting stung, it's because you're close to the nest, and you need to get out of there.
"The little ditty that I use is, 'If stings have been nil, it's best to stand still, but once you've been stung, cage your eyes and just run. If there's some brush, let it shield your rush,'" he says.
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