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Living with the sting

Absolutely Alabama.
Absolutely Alabama.(Source: Fred Hunter/WBRC)
Published: Sep. 13, 2021 at 1:59 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - In the 1980′s, an Entomologist at Jefferson State Community College, Dr. Dudley Guthrie, and his partner, Don Coleman, started capturing wasps. If the idea sounds kind of crazy, you should know there was a real reason for their project. Today, the work of Venom and Allergens Collections is being carried on by two partners, John Sharbutt and Spike Lemaster.

Of course, the question remains why would anyone go out and grab a nest filled with live wasps? The answer as simple as saving lives.

Absolutely Alabama.
Absolutely Alabama.(Source: Fred Hunter/WBRC)

“In Alabama we have two main types of stinging wasps. We have the Paper Wasp, which is the Polistes Exclaman. We also have another of the paper wasps that y’all probably know about, the Red Wasp, and that is Polistes Carolinas. Both those are very aggressive wasps,” explains John.

His partner Spike adds, “That which can kill you can also heal you.”

So, the primary ingredient in anti-snake venom is snake venom, which means the primary ingredient in anti-wasp venom would be wasp venom. But who catches the wasps?

John laughs, “Me and Spike, you know we’re just crazy enough to do it.”

Absolutely Alabama.
Absolutely Alabama.(Source: Fred Hunter/WBRC)

As a former Navy Corpsman, John understands the importance of his work, “Lot of people are allergic to wasps and lot of things that are venomous. You get into scorpions, snakes, things that can be grown in an aquarium, we can pull them out, milk the venom whenever we need. However, with bees and wasps, these types of insects, they must go through their natural life cycle. They have to go dormant during the winter, go underground. Then they come out, build their nests, and get collected by people like us, who go out, and who’re crazy enough to catch live wasps with their bare hands and ship to them.”

Absolutely Alabama.
Absolutely Alabama.(Source: Fred Hunter/WBRC)

Spike says it is all about saving lives, “If you’re stung and your spouse has to rush you to the hospital and they revive you, and they deem that you’re in the top 10 percentile of highly allergic to this venom, then that’s what this venom goes to.”

Absolutely Alabama.
Absolutely Alabama.(Source: Fred Hunter/WBRC)

The harvesting process is made a bit more hazardous for a special reason, according to John. “These wasps will eventually be used in the human body, so we can’t use chemicals or any pesticides.

We trap them in the cloth sacks, live on the nest and we immediately put them in the dry ice to freeze them. It preserves them so we can sort them later and ship them out to the lab.”

The sorting is done by hand as well, and it must be done in one particular way. “The one that has a red dot right on the front of the nose is the female. That’s the one we’re after. They have the venom. They have the stingers. The one with the completely yellow face, the male, has nothing. Doesn’t sting you. Doesn’t have venom.”

Absolutely Alabama.
Absolutely Alabama.(Source: Fred Hunter/WBRC)

As for the obvious question, John laughs, “Yes, we do get stung, but luckily for me I’m not allergic, so I’m not one of these people who need the product we’re helping to produce, but it still hurts.”

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