The WSDA team purchased the suits in February but didn’t know until last week whether they’d need to use them. After multiple failed attempts this fall to use tracking devices to follow captured wasps back to their nest, on Wednesday, October 21, they finally got a hit. Looney trailed the signal from the tagged insect, following as it grew increasingly stronger. But when it hit max signal, he didn’t see a nest on the ground, which is where Asian giant hornets usually build them. Then the hornet buzzed over his head. Then another one. Looney realized they were coming and going from an opening in an alder tree on what appeared to be private property. About 20 feet away, he spotted a children’s swing set.
That’s one of the reasons WSDA wanted to move so quickly—there were worries the insects might be getting close to people. So it was a good thing they had the suits already on hand. But they hadn’t expected to encounter a nest in a tree, so they needed a few days to get a new plan together. Around 5:30 on Saturday morning, more than a dozen WSDA workers gathered in the property owner’s yard, helping each other into the suits by the red light of their headlamps. (White lights tend to agitate the hornets.) Looney and others had set up scaffolding around the base of the tree earlier in the week, and now his colleagues stood atop it as they crammed dense foam padding into a crevice above and below the nest entrance. Then they wrapped the tree with cellophane, leaving just a small opening. Looney inserted a Shop Vac hose, sucking the insects out of their nest and into a secure container.
In the end, no one on the eradication team suffered any injuries, but Looney can’t give a verdict yet on how swarm-proof the suits are, because the insects simply didn’t try it. Normally, an assault on a nest would provoke the hornets to attack en masse. But on Saturday, the temperatures dipped into the thirties, making the bugs sluggish. And the team’s Shop Vac strategy worked well—no hornets even attempted to sting anyone or squirt venom at them.
Still, Looney says, they did run into a mobility issue the moment they stepped up onto the scaffolding. They discovered they couldn’t raise their arms high enough to reach the top of the nest opening, which was about 10 feet off the ground. “They’re very constraining,” he says of the suits. It’s not so much the thickness of the material as the cut. “If they were designed by a high-level tailor, I’m sure they would move better,” he continues. “But I don’t think they were.”
All that foam might have been hard to move in, but at least it kept people cozy during the five-hour eradication mission, says Looney. Except for one place—the attached rubber boots. They were too small for most people to wear thick socks inside them. “We all had very cold toes,” he says.