The Secret Life of Wasp Hunters in Japan

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Photo by Joost Van Itterbeeck

Wasp hunting is typical of countryside life in southeastern Gifu Prefecture. Here, it’s simply called “doing hebo (wasp).” The “wasp hunters” do it for the excitement, the love of nature and, ultimately, the gastronomic delight. Wasp hunters “do hebo” from July to November — and it takes commitment pretty much every day.

A worker Vespula flaviceps.Photo by Joost Van Itterbeeck

A worker Vespula flaviceps.

Hebo is the local name for yellow jacket wasps. However, the favored kind, Vespula flaviceps, is actually black and white. Hebo translates to “being weak,” and these wasps are no more dangerous than honeybees. The hachinoko (larvae and pupae) are among the favored foods of rural people.

Want to know how it works? Here is a crash course in “doing hebo.”

July: Outdoor excitement

Photo by Joost Van Itterbeeck

Preparing for the hunt.

It’s summer. Time to put on the boots and head into the forest. The wasp hunters are surrounded by Japanese cypress and cedar trees. The air is fresh and clean. The aim? To track down wasps and find their nests.

Here’s how the wasp hunters do it.

1. Attract worker wasps with fresh fish

Fresh fish as bait.Photo by Joost Van Itterbeeck

Fresh fish as bait.

Attract worker wasps with fresh fish as bait.It only takes a few minutes before a wasp lands on the bait.

2. Stick a ribbon to a tiny piece of fish and give it to the wasp

a tiny piece of fish with a ribbon attached to it.Photo by Kenichi Nonaka

A wasp hunter gives a tiny piece of fish, with a ribbon attached to it, to a wasp.

Wasp hunters use a toothpick and gently squeeze it underneath the wasp’s mouthparts. It will quickly discover that the piece of fish is not too heavy to carry back between its legs. This doesn’t disturb the wasp. It won’t attack the hunter. The wasp is entirely focused on taking food back to the nest.

3. Follow the wasp back to its nest

The ribbon makes it easier to follow the wasp.Photo by Kenichi Nonaka

The ribbon makes it easier to follow the wasp.

The ribbon makes it a whole lot easier to follow the wasp. This is repeated about four or five times before the nest is found.

4. Find and dig up the small, ball-shaped nest

Found!Photo by Joost Van Itterbeeck

Found!

The nest is located just underneath the topsoil. It is small because it is a young nest. Only queens make it through winter. So in spring they start building new nests. When the nest has been located, the hunters use smoke to calm the adult wasps down and dig up the nest. Wearing protective clothing is a must!

The wasp hunters enjoy the excitement of wasp hunting while the rest of the forest is calm and quiet.

July to October: Feed the wasps and relax

Modern nest boxes.Photo by Joost Van Itterbeeck

Modern nest boxes.

Nests are taken back home and placed inside wooden nest boxes. There is a huge variation in nest boxes. Traditional ones are very simple. They are not much more than a hollow log with a hole for the wasps to enter and exit and a flat piece of wood to cover the top. On the flipside, one local wasp hunter in Tsukechi town is an excellent carpenter. He builds truly professional and very practical nest boxes. You can even see inside!

The wasp hunters give hebo two types of food:

  • Sugar water for adult wasps (they need energy-rich noutishment to collect food and defend the nest)
  • Meat or fish (larvae need protein-rich food to grow)

Most wasp hunters keep the nest boxes in a specially made shed. Even though they are given food, the wasps will keep hunting for insects. So keeping the nests near a vegetable garden is always a good idea.

The wasp hunters then pull up a chair and quietly watch the industrious wasps fly in and out of the nest boxes.

Their flavor can be enriched through the food they eat!

Some people use cheap meat or fish up until about a week before harvesting time. Then they use meat with a rich flavor, such as deer. This trick works for many kinds of edible insects. Their flavor can be enriched through the food they eat!

November: Harvest time!

Excitement returns with the beginning of autumn. Five months have passed since the nests were collected from the forest. It’s now harvesting time — the highlight of the year!

The hunters keep some nests for themselves. They also sell some of their harvest, for example, to restaurants or people who have moved to cities. They don’t generally make a profit, though. “Doing hebo” is a hobby, not a business.

Harvesting wasps

Smoke calms the adult wasps down.

  • Adult wasps are calmed down with smoke
  • They use specially made smokers. It knocks the wasps out pretty quickly. Don’t worry: it’s still safe to eat the hachinoko. That isn’t the case when regular bug spray is used. Of course, the wasp hunters wear protective gear.
  • The combs are carefully taken out of the nest boxes filled with hachinoko.
A wasp hunter removes hachinoko from the comb cells.Photo by Joost Van Itterbeeck

A wasp hunter removes hachinoko from the comb cells.

  • The hachinoko are taken out of the comb cells
    One by one, the hachinoko are taken out of their comb cells with tweezers. Yes, it’s quite a bit of work and it takes patience. It may also sound boring, or even dirty and disgusting. But it’s fun for those who like hachinoko.

The intestines of the larvae are usually also removed. The body of a larva is pinched open with the tweezers. The intestines are lack a dark sack that is then pulled out. This is not necessary with the pupae. The larvae empty their intestines before metamorphosis (this is how scientists call the changing of shape from larva to adult). Now the hachinoko are ready to be cooked!

As it often goes with hobbies, they give people a sense of identity and pride. Throughout history, social insects (wasps, bees, ants and termites) have captured the imagination of cultures worldwide. If you’re not exactly ready to start the hobby yourself, you can see it in action at a local festival. In fact, there is one coming up on Nov. 3.

What a great way to celebrate the national holiday of Culture Day. Get all the info on Gifu Prefecture’s upcoming edible wasp festival on GaijinPot Travel.

There are no guided wasp hunting tours for tourists — yet. Would wasp hunting be something for you? Let us know in the comments section below!

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Researcher of edible insects and their uses.

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