I wrote an article for BBC World - a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, please do take a look!
I wrote an article for BBC World - a eulogy to insect-shaped insects. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, please do take a look!
Filled with nostalgia, I wrote about 'my first hornet hunt'...
"There! That tree, over there."
Miyake pointed to the foot of a low hill that rose above the paddy fields. When we reached the spot, there it was - a
giant hornet, crawling across the bark. I turned to Miyake in astonishment. How could he possibly have seen the insect
at such a distance?
The 65-year-old with impossibly sharp eyes smiled to himself, and he and Nakagaki began to prepare their chosen
‘bait’ – a piece of cloth, soaked in sugar water and attached to a long pole.
I later learned that what had, in fact, caught Miyake’s eye across the paddy field was the tree itself. It secretes a sweet
nectar, and giant hornets – which can only ingest liquids once they have reached adulthood – love to feed on it.
The hornet soon sensed the sugar water below. She flew down and began to drink. Nakagaki turned to me. "We do
nothing, for now. Let her get accustomed to it." Suddenly, she took off at speed.
"Good. Now more will come," Miyake stated with a smile, shielding his eyes from the bright autumn sun as he stared
...if you'd like to continue reading, the full story is on the BUGSfeed website - which also has a LOT of information about edible insects, and a pretty interesting documentary film trailer, too.
I was able to take these photos due to the privilege of living among people who have a deep understanding of the soils of the forests around them.
Their understanding of the soil means that they know how to find and befriend tiny, aggressive ‘hebo’ – black wasps. They know which are male, which are female, which are drones and which are new queens. They know from glancing at the forest floor around them and from checking the direction of the wind and the sun and from recalling the weather events of the current year, where these wasps are likely to have made their home.
‘Hebo’ live in the soil. Their name in japanese means ‘bee of the earth’, and every year in springtime hundreds of people with a great love and respect for these creatures seek out their nests while they are still small. Once found, they bring the nests back to their homes and raise them on a rich diet in order to eventually harvest and eat some, and preserve others. For every three nests harvested in autumn as the earth cools, one is left to ensure next year’s harvest, and thousands of well-fed new queens vacate their nest to hibernate over the winter, leaving behind their beautiful construction (the main nest shown in the picture, with its columns and caverns).
But back to the springtime. Finding the entrance to a springtime wasp nest is hard enough, but this is only the beginning. The nest may be as small as a ping pong ball, and the entrance tunnel may be several inches long. And the nest itself is fragile and papery; the soil itself is its main source of protection. The next task, then, is to feel your way into the soil, through the tunnel and any tributaries, and to carefully dig out the nest without harming the wasps.
This composite image for InTandem is dedicated to a man who was famed for his ability to do just this. His name was Mr Keiji Ando, he was a teacher by profession, and I as his unofficial student (one among many) learnt a great deal from his love and understanding of the ‘bees of the earth’ and the ecosystem in which they lived. He was the elected leader of the national wasp society in Japan, and just three months ago he told me with his usual infectious enthusiasm that once again in June this year he was looking forward to seeking out the nests in the forests surrounding his home.
Unfortunately this wasn’t to be – I think he knew this, and was voicing his dreams in full knowledge of their fragility, something that isn't easy – and he passed away from a very aggressive and swift cancer in April, when the wasps had barely emerged from their hibernation.
Thanks to Mr Ando I was able to see the world from a wasp’s eye view, and with this image I invite you to do the same.
Mr Keiji Ando, you were an inspiring and unforgettable friend and teacher. Thank you for everything, and I hope that I can do some justice to your enthusiasm for life and generosity of spirit in my own life and work.
*This is not strictly true. I spent about 45 minutes wandering and taking many, many photos in awe of it all. Then I visited the area where the butterflies are bred, and saw their pupae, lime green or dark brown or even black but for so many, specked with gold. Why butterfly pupae resemble a precious metal raises a hundred questions, none of which I'll attempt to answer here.
This was my final month in Japan, still in love with it all (and hopefully not turning into Susan, not just yet), and I think (hope) I'll be back.
Last month, I visited a museum of insects in Itami City, southern-central Japan (not too far from Kyoto). Why? Partly because they had a special exhibition on world entomophagy, and partly because we were hosting visiting researchers from Zimbabwe whom we hoped to impress.
(There's something I want to mention about our Zimbabwean visitors: If they liked a meal, they literally sang, clapped and danced the praises of the host and/or food. I wish I had grown up in a place where this is a standard reaction to a satisfied stomach. What host/chef wouldn't be pleased with such a response? It's an instant recipe for friendship, worked every time here in Japan, and seemed to come so naturally.)
Anyway - the insect museum! It was fascinating, engrossing... until I entered the butterfly house. And that was something else. I felt like Lucy, having stumbled through the coats in the wardrobe and suddenly ended up treading on snow, but I was treading on solid ground and surrounded by all of the things - cascades of orchids over waterfalls through palm fronds under canary yellow bell flowers, carmine blooms, all of the colours and amongst this assault on the senses, the fluttering of wings - butterflies in their hundreds. So I took a few photos*, and here they are:
The wasps are already busy building their nests! And the fireflies are mating, and laying their eggs.
Yesterday, together with the Asuke wasp club, Tetsuo-san from Kushihara, and Takata-san from Kyodo news, we found two wasp nests in the forests near Asuke.
It was great.
Admittedly, expectations were pretty low. It's very early in the season, the sky was fairly cloudy, and the temperature was cool. We wandered through the forest placing sticks of bamboo in the rain-drenched earth, chatting about the whole 'wasp' thing, but in terms of insects, we had only flies and mosquitoes for company. We picked some wild vegetables while we waited for the wasps that never came...
Then, all of a sudden, a little black wasp with white stripes landed on a piece of raw squid - and in that very moment, the day become infinitely more interesting!
We found the first nest just downhill from the road. The second was a little further.
But, these nests are tiny. The queen wasp has probably only just started to make her nest, has only just given birth to the first female worker wasps, and they're all doing their very best to raise the new brood.
So we left a marker by each nest, and will dig them up nest Saturday, when they're a little bigger. Stay tuned :)
(This photo, below, shows a wasp emerging from a newly-built nest...)
On the evening of the same day, we visited the Akechi golf club for the annual 'Firefly festival'.
Fireflies only breed in clean water, and since golf clubs are usually associated with river pollution, my expectations were fairly low for these insects, too.
However, thanks to the work of one man - Miyake Tetsuo, from Kushihara - the water that flows from the Akechi golf course is clean enough for fireflies to breed. When he first began working for the golf club, nearly 40 years ago now, there were no fireflies to be seen. Since then, he's been working hard collecting eggs, taking care of the newly hatched larvae, and most importantly ensuring that there is a clean water supply in which he can release them. The firefly festival is currently seeing its 17th year. Approximately 150 people attend, every year. And their (our) reactions, upon seeing the fireflies light up like stars amidst the depth of the night, are priceless. It's a really, really beautiful sight.
Connecting the dots, one can conclude that this one man has been singularly responsible for the happiness of at least 2,550 people, over the past 17 years. Not to mention the 'happiness' of the ecosystem surrounding the golf course. & If that's not an inspiring Summer Solstice then I don't know what is!
(All photos in this post are courtesy of Takata Naurmi)
I want to write a bit about how it feels to dig out a hornet nest. It's really difficult to explain what this is like, and perhaps no one really wants to know. But I wanted to know :) So I tried it:
Your movements are constrained by a thick plastic body suit, taped tightly at your wrists and ankles. The helmet on your head is uncomfortable and awkward. The net in front of your face feels utterly inadequate, when all of a sudden several hundred hornets (each about 4-5cm) fly at you. The sound as they hit the suit and net feels like someone is shooting at you with a pea-gun from all angles, but each shot comes with the intention of disabling you. And if they aim right, they just might be successful.
Meanwhile you have a job to do. You have to get them, any way you can. You begin by trying to hit them into alcohol as they fly at you. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and what's more, it makes them angry. So lots of them come at you. The smell of the poison is really strong, and no, it doesn't compare to any other smell. (It smells like hornet liquor, if that helps at all.)
Anyway. You've got to get the nest somehow. But it's inside a tree. And the tools you have don't seem to be working very well. You can't get it out. So you break the wood around the nest with your hands, for lack of any better tools. And you reach into the mass of angry hornets (hoping your double-layered gloves are thick enough to withstand the stings) to break off each layer of the nest they have spent the whole summer making... to take the children they have spent the whole summer feeding...is that ok? Well. The season is almost over, and they will all be dead within a couple of weeks whether you take them or not. But it does feel a bit like war.
I should probably add that the aftermath is not quite so good if you get poison in your eye. It's very, very painful, and long lasting. The best solution to this, it turns out, is to drink red wine.
In November, we`re holding an entomophagy event - a six course insectivorous lunch, based on a traditional Italian feast menu. This week, we held a trial event. This involved playing around with different ways of incoporating Japanese insects into our favourite Italian dishes, and serving them up to friends and specialists. See below for photos and explanations of some of the dishes! (Comments, advice and questions are all more than welcome)
Why Italian? Three reasons: Firstly, we wanted to take on the challenge of incorporating insects into the cuisine of a European country, since Europe is the one continent that lacks a history of entomophagy*. Secondly, Rome, Italy, was the location of the 2012 landmark FAO conference on entomophagy (which resulted in the publication of recent comprehensive FAO report on global entomophagy and food and feed security). Third and finally, tomatoes are a key ingredient in Italian cuisine. Why is this important? Because tomatoes are rich in glutamate, and are therefore often enhanced with small amounts of inosinate-rich foods such as anchovies or sardines to create a more intense umami taste. In this way, we hope to use insects as an inosinate-rich ingredient that will deepend the taste of typical Italian cuisine.
*(There are a few exceptions to this: For example, Casu Marzu is an Italian cheese that contains live fly larvae, which are eaten with the cheese; A similar example is found in the German cheese Milbenkase, containing live cheese mites.)
The main courses, clockwise from top left: Antipasto: A selection of tofu `cheeses` (soft tofu pressed and marinated in miso and sake kasu), with grasshoppers and silkworm pupae lightly fried with herbs and garlic, served as accompaniments to homemade bread; Salada: tricolore salad topped with grasshoppers; Primo: herbed cream pasta with crushed wasp larvae; tomato basil pasta with crushed wine-infused silkworm; Contorno: Oven roasted aubergine parmigiana with a silkworm okara topping; Secondo: Pizza (not a traditional Secondo dish but we wanted to try making pizza!) with silkworm tomatoe sauce and topped with grilled vegetables and herbed grasshoppers;
If I live to an age at which all I can do is muse about days gone by, yesterday will be one of 'those days' that I dwell on. Probably.
I spent most of the day making 'hebo-go-hei-mochi' in preparation for a local festival.
Then, at 3pm, I checked my phone and saw that I had a missed call from an unknown number. I called the unknown number, and the conversation went something like this:
'Oh, hi, how are you doing? I was calling you because we have found a giant hornet nest and so we're about to go and dig it out but we thought you might like to come along too'
To this i responded with a very (probably too) strong YES AND THANK YOU SO SO MUCH.
First, we checked out the place where they had begun hornet-hunting. The bait was a 2 litre bottle of sugar water hanging from a persimmon tree (above). Several hours earlier, they tied a piece of white string to one of the hornets feeding on the sugar water, and followed it back to the nest.
Giant hornets travel up to 2km from the nest when foraging for food. The nests that they found yesterday were fairly close by, about 0,5km away from the bait, on the edge of a rice field (above).
In order to see the 'harvesting' process first hand, it was necessary to wear this suit (above). The suit alone is not enough, though; Every opening (ankles, wrists) must be taped up tightly, and two layers of goves are required. Even then, the only thing protecting one's face is a net, and since the hornets can shoot their venom some distance if provoked, there is a danger that some may go in the eyes. I received some great expert advice to avoid this: 'If it goes in your eyes, you'll be temporarily blinded, maybe for a couple of days. So take care. Just don't look up.'
When this photo (above) was taken, I felt like the special suit (in all its taped-up glory) was a bit OTT.
...But by the time that this photo was taken, I was beginning to wonder if the taped-up suit was really enough! We had approached the nest, Tetsuo-san had disturbed them by slashing away at the surrounding vegetation and widening the nest hole, and giant hornets were flying at us from all directions. They fly fast and purposefully into you, bouncing off the suit with a loud buzzing noise. One or two is unsettling enough, but when all of a sudden 100-odd hornets come at you, it does feel a bit...different.
In the picture above Tetsuo-san is redirecting the hornets into a big bottle of white liquor. The first time he asked me 'Want to try?' I was far too busy worrying about the strength of the suit and attempting to protect my eyes. Gradually, though, I got accustomed to the feeling of being under continuous hornet attack, and I took on the task of hitting hornets into white liquor. Difficult, but profitable labour.
After hitting as many adult hornets into the white liquor as possible, the next task is to reach down into the nest hole and pull out the nest. In the photo above, Tetsuo-san is pulling out the nest layers one by one and placing them on the ground next to the hornet-filled liquor.
Here's our harvest:
And some close-ups:
Recipes to follow!
Although it turns out that what they say is true: These are best eaten raw, straight from the nest.
Edit: I have just realised - I began this post with a lie! I spent two hours this morning, from 6am to 8am, trying to find a wasps nest in the forest behind my house, during which time I saw many, many hebo. Daisuke and I used wild boar meat as bait and tissue paper as a mark - but the hebo seem to have learnt to cut through the tissue paper. They're mesmerising to watch. They cut over and over again, quite methodically, using their front pincers until the tissue is almost severed. Then, they begin to vibrate frantically, like a miniature striped pneumatic drill - and all of a sudden, the tissue breaks and floats to the ground, and the wasp flies away with his piece of boar flesh.
Just in case you were wondering about the early starts, the photo below shows how beautiful the village looks at 6am in the morning.