COTTAGE GROVE - The contraption looks like something from a makeshift "Ghostbusters" halloween costume. But it snags wasps, not specters.
Climbing a ladder to reach the roofline of a rural home on a recent morning, Garth Benton held a tube connected to a plastic container. The container was linked by a hose to a wet/dry vacuum unit that sat on the ground. Benton was using the vacuum to suck in hornets as they buzzed to and from their nest under the eave of the house.
"The idea is we want to catch them alive," co-worker Greg Bicondoa said.
Benton, a venom specialist, and Bicondoa, a nest removal specialist, work for ALK Source Materials. The company last fall opened a location in Cottage Grove after Bicondoa moved to southern Lane County from Chico, Calif. He'll go anywhere within a 50-mile radius of the city - including to Eugene and Springfield - to collect wasps at no charge. That includes hornets and yellow jackets, a different species of wasp that regularly nests in the ground.
Wait, what? Why would anyone want to catch those insects? And what do they do with them? The answers lie in vaccines.
Most people regard wasps - busy in the summer, dormant in the winter - as nasty nuisances, and eradicate them using chemical sprays while trying to avoid their painful stings.
But Denmark-based ALK-Abell-, parent company of ALK Source Materials, wants the wasps alive and unsprayed because there's commercial value in wasp venom.
ALK uses wasp venom to make drugs for the preventive treatment of patients who are allergic to wasp stings. Wasp stings can trigger life- threatening anaphylactic shock in some people. Vaccines developed from wasp venom can help such people build up immunity.
It takes an awful lot of wasp collecting to amass enough of the insects. ALK Source Materials has a crew of about 10 collectors on staff in the United States and 40 more people on contract around the country.
Traded on the Nasdaq Copenhagen, ALK-Abell- has more than 2,200 employees worldwide. The global biotechnology company had revenue of nearly $467 million in 2016 and profits of nearly $42 million, according to Nasdaq.
ALK Source Materials pays contractors per pound of wasps collected, with the price varying by species. Paper wasps fetch the highest price, at $2,000 per pound.
"The species is in high demand, so every one counts," Benton said. Fewer paper wasps nest together than other species, so it takes longer to collect them.
Yellow hornets bring in $875 per pound, Benton said. Yellow jackets go for $800 per pound. Those wasps have larger nests, sometimes containing thousands of individual insects. Collectors must gather as many as 4,000 wasps to make a pound.
Hornet nests in Oregon reach their peak size in August. Yellow jacket nests peak in September.
House calls to remove wasp nests took Benton and Bicondoa to rural homes Thursday near Yoncalla and Curtin. "Obviously the bigger, the better, but we take them all," Benton said.
Free wasp removal has been available before in Lane County. Ann Kruit, 60, of Veneta said she did it as a summer job about 20 years ago in and around Eugene. She started a company called Bee Leave after being taught by and working with an experienced wasp catcher.
"It was just fun because every time you get a call it's a different situation," she said.
When Kruit collected wasps, she would go after their nests at night, sealing them shut and hauling away the whole nest. She sold the wasps to a company similar to ALK. Her son happened to live in one of the homes visited Thursday by Benton and Bicondoa, bringing back memories of her summer time pursuits of wasps.
Benton and Bicondoa use a different method, centered on the vacuum.
First they capture the "field worker" wasps by setting up the vacuum tube near the nest for about 15 minutes to 30 minutes, depending on the size of the nest. Field worker wasps spend their days searching for food and bringing it back to the nest. Then, the wasp catchers break apart the nest to grab the insects inside.
Once the wasps are in the container, Bicondoa fills it with carbon dioxide to knock them out. He pours the wasps into a small cardboard box and puts them into a cooler with dry ice. The freeze kills them.
Bicondoa said any wasp used for vaccine must be killed by freezing.
"That way their venom is preserved and doesn't spoil," he said.
Benton, who lives near Post Falls, Idaho, has been capturing wasps for 40 years. His father started a business based on collecting venom and other allergens in 1977 in Spring Mills, Pa. He worked for his father and has been an ALK Source Materials employee since 1984, when it bought the family business. The company only recently moved to Idaho.
He said he was stung often in his youth as he and his brother figured out the best way to catch wasps. And, despite now using a protective suit, hood and gloves, sometimes a wasp finds a way to sting him.
"I always say it is fair. We are trying to get them," he said. "They are just trying to do what is natural and defend themselves." BUZZ BUSTERS Working out of Cottage Grove, ALK Source Materials will remove hornet, wasp and yellow jacket nests for free. It gathers venom from the insects to make antivenom, and will go within a 50-mile radius of Cottage Grove to collect them. Website: freebeenestremoval.com Phone: 541-510-0191
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