For most of us, yellow jackets are a nuisance and for some people, they’re fatal. But for Norman Patterson, they’re more of an obsession.
“As a child, I remember finding a wild honey bee hive in the woods and I was fascinated by it," said Patterson. "That’s really what got me into honey bees, which eventually got me into collecting hornets and yellow jackets for medical labs.”
By Patterson's estimate, he is one of about 25 people in the country who collects stinging insects for medical purposes. The venom is delicate though so in order to safely capture the insects, collectors need the right tools.
“Every collector has his own traps. It’s like a Jedi. You make your own lightsaber, so we all have our own traps and we all believe our traps are the best," said a grinning Patterson. "Mine of course, are the best. I’m sure of that."
From far, far away it just looks like a standard shop-vacuum. The genius part is in the middle of the hose where there's a clear plastic jug with some PVC piping running into it. “It's an inline trap," explained Patterson. "The yellow jacket gets sucked through vacuum power into the chamber and because there’s screen over it, it does not get sucked into the vacuum. They get caught in this chamber here.”
Patterson lives in Litchfield County but travels around Connecticut. During a house call in Wethersfield, the yellow jackets were flying in and out of several holes right above the doorway. Before calling Patterson, the homeowner tried to take care of the problem himself. He used caulk in hopes of trapping the yellow jackets in the nest. “People try to solve problems and they just make them worse,” said Patterson.
His van is filled with various vacuums, ladders and tools because he never knows what to expect. On this trip, he used a crowbar to pry open what he thinks is the yellow jackets’ main exit.
"When they're coming and going from a bunch of different spots I'll block it up and try to collect as much as I can," said Patterson. He'll return to a nest over the course of a few weeks. Instead of killing off a nest, he "milks" them to increase his yield. His hope is to train the yellow jackets to use one hole. "Yellow jackets can be trained," he said with a smirk.
Patterson propped up the vacuum hose against the hole, and powered it up. After a few minutes, he added a second trap on the other side of the doorway. Nearly 15 minutes go by and he’s satisfied with the collection.
Then came the fun part. Patterson removed the plastic jug and pumped it with carbon dioxide. A few dozen frenzied yellow jackets instantly drop. They’ve been put to sleep for a few minutes so Patterson can transfer them to a cooler of dry ice.
This will eventually kill the insects, but it preserves the venom. “The first thing that seems to go bad on a yellow jacket is the venom and the lab would be able to tell because when they pull the venom out it’ll be cloudy, rather than nice and crystal clear,” he explained.
Patterson has freezers back home filled with more than 40 pounds of different species of wasps and hornets. He then ships them to labs in the U.S. and U.K. The labs pull the stingers off, extract the venom, and use it in immunotherapy treatments for people with sting allergies, which is roughly 5 percent of the population.