The Hornet Whisperers

The Weidert family has removed Humboldt stingers for decades, and probably saved lives



Tuesday afternoon was chaos at the Service house, in Eureka. In the backyard, 25-year-old Ryan Weidert, in a beekeeper-type netted hat, blue rubber gloves and a blue jumpsuit, the pockets, pantlegs and wrists snugged tight with duct tape, was kneeling in the grass as enraged hornets flung themselves at him. He slowly waved a vacuum hose, attached to a whining gas-powered contraption, to suck up the bobbing hornets, then held it steady over their nest in the ground. Then slowly waved it about again.

Inside the house, Pam Service's 2-and-a-half year old granddaughter, Virginia, was wailing, while her twin brother, Robert, scampered about. What was the man in the scary suit doing? Who was the other man, talking to Grandma? Service told the twins the men were taking away the hornets. What would they do with the hornets? Jim Weidert, Ryan's dad, told Service they sent them to a pharmaceutical lab in Spokane where the stingers and venom sacs would be removed and the venom turned into serum for immunotherapy shots to give to deathly allergic people. Service thought about it, then told the twins the hornets were being taken to a new home.

It had been three days of hornet frenzy here. On Sunday, Service and the kids had been out in the sunny backyard reading the book "The Big Honey Hunt." The bears follow the bee to its hive to get the honey, and when one bear swats open the log to reveal the hive the bees swarm out to chase the bears. A real-live bee-like creature zipped past in the air, and Service said, "Look, there's a bee." But then she noticed a bunch of them going under a log in the garden. Uh oh, hornets. Her son-in-law sprayed poison into the log that night. Monday morning, Service went out to investigate. The log seemed morgue-quiet. "Then, like an idiot, I kicked it. And they came roaring out, and they chased me into the house. I got stung twice."

Oh God, it hurt, a sharp burning pain. Unlike honeybees, who lose their stingers, hornets usually don't and can sting you repeatedly. Not sure if she was allergic to hornets, Service went to the hospital. Turns out she has a "normal" -- not breath-stopping, life-stealing deadly -- reaction to hornet stings. Her arm's still red and swollen.

She called the county health department, who gave her the number for the Weiderts' answering service. As luck would have it, the Weiderts were already on their way to Humboldt County for their annual June hornet hunt. Service left her name and number. And now here they were.

Twice a year since 1973, Grass Valley residents Jim Weidert and his wife, Linda, have placed a small ad in the Times-Standard saying they can deal with your hornets and yellowjackets. It gives the number to their Eureka answering service. When they get enough calls, they head on up to Humboldt. In the spring, they primarily go after yellow-and-black Dolichovespula arenaria, the aerial yellowjacket, which builds large, hanging, alienhead-like gray paper nests under eaves, in bushes and trees, or similar places. The Weiderts also will collect the similar-looking common yellowjacket, Vespula vulgaris, the one in Service's backyard. And in August and September, the Weiderts return to collect the black-and-white bald-faced hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, whose nest matures in the fall. Both species are yellowjackets, in the wasp family, and not technically "true hornets."

Jim Weidert just calls them hornets -- as long as he gets the right species, and gender, to the pharmaceutical company, who cares what you call them?

This year, Linda couldn't make the trip, so son Ryan came up with Jim. By late afternoon last Monday, they had picked up their messages, phoned their callers, and were visiting nest sites around Arcata and McKinleyville. They went first to meet the homeowners and assess the nests. If the nests were in bushes or trees, Ryan, in his taped-shut suit and net hat, clipped away the surrounding branches. At most nests, he also vacuumed up as many of the hornets as he could that weren't out foraging. They sorted those, and let the males, the drones, go; they don't have stingers. They put the females -- queens and workers -- in labeled baggies in coolers of dry ice. After dark, working until the wee hours, they returned to each house to finish the job, creeping through gates and side yards to get to a nest (its remaining hornets inside for the night), wrap a cloth bag around it, then cut or scrape it free. They put each bagged nest into another bag, duct-taped it shut and put it in the back of their truck.

Tuesday, they did it all over again, working their way toward Eureka and several more nests, six of them within mere blocks of each other.

"It is unusual that so many nests are so close together," said Jim, as he walked up to another house in the cluster around 4:30 p.m. Could be that a nest last year in the vicinity had had a highly successful hatch of queens.

Walter Stevens opened the front door. "Hello, hello!" said Jim. "Walter? I'm Jim Weidert. You called about a hornet nest?"

"Yes, yes, come on in!" said Stevens.

The nest was out back, in a hawthorne tree just over the fence in the neighbors' yard. Ryan rolled a big, red cable spool to the fence and stood on it. Studied the nest. Clipped some branches away. Hornets enveloped him.

Stevens bent down to tie his shoelaces. "He's getting ready to run," quipped Jim.

Stevens laughed. But he looked nervous. "My concern is, we have kids coming over from the neighborhood all the time, and they like to jump on the trampoline," he said. "And they're out here having fun, and I don't want them to get stung."

Debby and Dick Storre's nest was high up near the peak of a picturesque, ivy-covered barn. Somebody had already leaned a ladder up to it and clipped away some of the ivy. Dick, watching Ryan work, said that years ago he'd been stung in the face by a hornet. "And by the time I got to the hospital, I was shaking so bad I couldn't get my wallet out," he said. After that he took a series of shots over two years to build immunity against hornet venom.

Far from the cluster, up in the Ridgewood area, Diane and Ben Adan had a nest on their house for the third year in a row. They laughed about it, but looked kind of pleased, too.

"How do you grow these," Jim asked Ben. "What's the allure?"

Maybe it was the warm east-south exposure that they liked.

"And I don't mind," said Ben. "They don't bother me."

"The thing is," said Diane, "they get in my hair when I'm out gardening. Makes me nervous."

"In a way, I didn't want to call Jim," said Ben. "But we have company, and they get scared."

"It is just amazing," said Diane, watching as Ryan vacuumed the frenzied hornets. "And they do good things with the venom."

One dove to the lawn, and Jim leaped after it and plucked it up with his bare fingers, crunching its thorax, where the legs and wings are attached, to disable but not kill it. "The queen!" he said.

After nightfall, the Weiderts visited each hanging nest again. At Indianola, things got messy. Around 11 p.m. they were parked by the tall barn. The nightlights had been turned off, to make their job easier, and the big dipper hung above the barn roof. A cricket chirped. The nest was high up, under the eave, and attached in multiple places. Ryan, at the top of the ladder, struggled to scrape it free. The hornets woke up, and many fled the nest as Ryan tried to keep the bag around it. Jim hurriedly laid the flashlight on the ground beneath the nest. The hornets dove toward the pool of light.

"Now we crunch thoraxes," said Jim. And he and Ryan danced slowly about, lunging to pluck up disoriented hornets from the blacktop one by one.

They went to get the nests around Arcata and McKinleyville after that, returning to their motel sometime around 2 a.m.

Weidert, 59, is wiry, with light hair and blue-gray eyes that have a watch-out glint to them, as if he's eager to test your mettle. Or your funny bone. He grew up in Orange County with seven siblings. When his second oldest brother, Ed, was at Fullerton State, he started collecting hornets nests on contract for Hollister-Stier, the pharmaceutical company in Spokane that makes serum for immunotherapy shots. Jim, who was 12, started helping him. Ed also collected pollens, and eventually moved to Missouri where he set up his pollen workshop in a farmhouse outside of Farmington.

"He would come out here in the summertime to do the hornets, but it got to be too time-consuming, so I got to doing that part of it," said Jim.

Jim became a schoolteacher, and for most of his 25-year career he taught junior high science, math and P.E. at Magnolia Intermediate in Grass Valley. In the summers, he collected.

"People have always said to me, you must be crazy to be collecting these yellowjackets," Jim said. "I tell them I'm a junior high teacher -- that's crazy. Because you cannot predict the behavior of a teenager. But you can predict the behavior of a yellowjacket." Annoy them, they'll attack. Leave ’em alone, make no quick movements, they're cool.

When Linda, a health educator, married Jim, she joined the summertime forays for hornets, pollens and molds. They raised their three boys in the business, collecting in the first weeks of summer break, and again in the fall.

"This was our summer-fun money, our hornet money," said Jim.

Jim retired from teaching four years ago, but keeps collecting. The pollen work has become year-round. Each year they receive a list of species the company wants collected, and they bid on which species, and the quantity, they want to collect. The prices vary by species and the market. They bid successfully this year on a slew of pollens, which they've almost finished collecting.

"And we have to collect 20 pounds of arenaria, and I think about five pounds of the bald-faced hornet," said Ryan.

Hollister-Stier is paying them $850 a pound this year for the aerial yellowjackets, Jim said. It takes about eight hives to get a pound of yellowjackets. "At $850 a pound, if you figure in our costs -- for gas to get up here, for dry ice, food and lodging -- we figure we'll break even at about two pounds," Jim said. "And from then on it's profit."

On this Humboldt trip, they gathered 15 hives -- a whole lot fewer than they used to collect in Humboldt, Jim said.

Motel 6, Arcata, about 9 a.m., Wednesday. The Weiderts had set up an old brown card table next to their truck in the parking lot, and they were sorting into piles the yellowjackets -- temporarily knocked out by dry ice -- from one of the nests they'd bagged. Some were waking up. The Weiderts crunched the females' thoraxes, so they couldn't escape, and dropped the pile of drones in the strip of grass by the parking lot, where they could fly away.

The sorted workers and queens were secured in a labeled baggie, and placed in a double cooler with likewise labeled baggies of hornets vacuumed up the day before. Ryan retrieved another nest from the big cooler of dry ice. Jim peeled off the outer paper, marbled with short dashes of color. "See the stripes? Each line is a mouthful," Jim said. Hornets make their nests by chewing wood into pulp. The tan and gray of old wood predominated. The dark red stripes were redwood. Light green, bright white, orange -- that was paint from an old fence or a house.

The stack of combs emerged. Jim brushed off the loose hornets and twisted the combs apart, one by one, each time revealing a surface pocked with hexagonal chambers: some empty; some stuffed with wriggling pale-yellow larvae, just waking up; some with a just-hatching hornet climbing out, face-first; some with a hiding drone, butt up; and some still filled with a white unhatched sac. Jim plucked out the grubs and tossed them in the strip of grass; sometimes, they'll keep them for bait or chicken food. He helped free the hatching hornets from their chambers and put them in their respective piles. Ryan, meanwhile, flattened the bits of paper and pressed gently, looking for hornets. Jim swept a pile of detritus into a bucket with a screen near the bottom and swished it all around to separate scraps and leaves from hornets. He then swept a pile of hornets in finer debris into an aluminum turkey roasting pan, gently swished it and blew on the contents to loft out the last fine paper bits. The sorted and cleaned hornets were then bagged and labeled and iced.

Motel guests, packing their cars or walking their dogs, crept close, watched, and then said a startled, "Oh! Hey..." A pitbull puppy wandered through, wagging and sniffing. Then a fellow in a big cowboy hat, paper coffee cup in hand, walked over, planted his feet wide, and watched.

"Is that what you do?" he asked. Took a sip of his coffee.

Jim and Ryan said the hornets were for allergy medicine. The man said his name was Tony Latham. He and his ladyfriend were on their way to Redding to see her grandkids.

"What do you do with the nest?" he asked, after awhile.

"Just tear it up," said Ryan. It was the short answer. But, actually, up until recently they were selling the nest paper to an artist in England. They used to give it to a local art teacher, and to a blackpowder specialist who said it made the best wadding.

"That'd make a good poultice," said Latham.

He watched. The Weiderts worked. "I've seen a lot of hornets in the mountains," Latham offered. "Mostly in Nevada. I never messed with them."

Latham left. And Peter Smerick, from New York, strolled up. He'd been leaving, but then he saw the two guys hunched over the table. "I saw the baggies and thought, these guys, they're doing something with drugs," he said. "Then I saw the little bugs."

At one time, Smerick said, he'd been a professional ice skater with Ice Capades. "And last Monday and Tuesday, we had our 70th reunion, in Las Vegas," he said. After that he'd rented a car to go see Great Basin National Park, in Nevada, and Lassen National Park. Now he was going to dip his toes in the Pacific.

Smerick wanted to know everything. So Jim explained how a queen will build a small wad of nest and start laying worker eggs in the comb. The workers take over expanding the nest, and also go out and hunt down insects and picnic food that they chew up and feed to the larvae. The larvae, in turn, reward them with a sweet secretion packed with amino acids, which the workers lap up. The queen eventually starts producing future queen eggs along with more worker eggs -- workers live only two weeks -- laying them in old chambers as well as new. When the queen runs out of sperm -- stored in her abdomen, from the previous year's fling with a drone -- she begins laying drone eggs. Larvae turn into fresh new little hornets, who emerge from white sacs and assume their roles. Workers work. New queens take off to find mates -- after which, they find a snug spot to spend the winter, and emerge in early spring to start the process all over again. The drones also take off, to eat nectar and find mates. Then, like the mother queen in the fall, they die.

"That's all the drones do, is mate," said Jim. "They go out and look for queens."

"Sounds like real life," said Smerick, a prim twinkle in his eye.

A drone, waking up as Jim and Ryan cleaned and sorted yet another nest, lifted into the air and flew in a dizzy, small circle before dashing off.

"Checking his bearings," said Jim.

Most of the onlookers had packed up and moved on. Jim had a few more stories to tell. About the time he filled a helper's shower with banana slugs. And, another time, an assistant's motel bed with rocks. About removing nests in pot country.

"Honeydew, man," he said. Last year, he made some rounds in Southern Humboldt. "Once one pot grower saw I was legit, they all started calling me," he said. "It's funny, you know who the pot growers are, because they're the ones who have to be there when you come by." But the roads about killed him. The nests, and queens, are smaller that far south, and sometimes you'll travel 25 minute of twisty backroads just to get to one nest. "A lot of driving for a bit of insect," he said.

One time, his second cousin was helping him get hornets. "When we were about done, I took a bunch of drones and cut their antennae short," Jim said. Now, normally, it's easy to tell drones from queens from workers. Queens and workers have short antennae, and queens are bigger than everyone else. Drones have long, end-curled antennae. Jim put the altered drones in a baggie, and laid his cousin's final paycheck in with them.

"And he said, 'No way! No way!" recalled Jim, laughing hard. "'No way!'"

Then Jim told a horrifying tale. "My brother Ed was murdered, you know."

It was 1989. Ed was 44 and living in Farmington, Mo. But he conducted the pollen work in a farmhouse outside of town. And, somebody had been breaking into the farmhouse when he wasn't there and stealing microscopes and other equipment. One day Ed caught the thief redhanded.

"He got arrested," said Jim. "And, of course, Ed was the person who was to testify against him."

Ed went missing. Later, his body was found buried in the woods. The thief had hired a hitman -- the same hitman, strangely, the thief had previously hired to kill his estranged wife, a plot that never unfolded. The hitman was caught -- the thief's wife helped detectives uncover the plot -- and hanged himself in jail.

They began to pack up, and Ryan popped a chip of dry ice into his mouth. Blew out white smoke and grinned.

He'd been only about 4 when his Uncle Ed was killed, so he hadn't really known him. "But I think I would have liked him," he said.

Ryan, who recently got his bachelor's in geology from U.C. Santa Barbara, said he and his two older brothers have been taking on more of the pollen work, which has increased.

Hornets, meanwhile, are dropping off.

"We've seen a decrease in hornet nest calls in recent years," said Jim.

In years past, they might get as many in a day as they got this whole trip, and stay for more days. Maybe it was because there were a lot more poisons available now, Ryan said.

"Or maybe it's climate change," Jim added. "It's definitely less foggy than it was 30, 40 years ago."

Or maybe fewer people were seeing their ad. "So many of the people who call us now are the older generation," Jim said. "They're the only ones reading the newspaper."

But at least older customers are reliable. Often on fixed incomes, they can't afford to hire an expensive exterminator -- one local exterminator, for instance, charges $125 to remove a visible yellowjacket hive. If it's hidden, or hard to get to, the price goes up.

The Weiderts do it for free. True, they make money off the hornets, from the pharmaceutical lab. But most people don't seem to mind that.

"About half of them just want us to get rid of the nests, because they're worried about them," Jim said. "And the other half are glad we're doing something for medicine, something that saves lives."

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