When a Nanaimo beekeeper spotted large wasp-like creatures pestering his honeybee colonies in August 2019, Paul van Westendorp arrived on scene to investigate.
Van Westendorp, BC’s provincial apiarist, worked with scientists in Japan to quickly identify the assailants as the Asian giant hornet. As the largest hornet species on the planet, it’s an insect that doesn’t belong in this part of the world.
With the intruding species identified—and dubbed “murder hornet” by the media—van Westendorp began working at his office and research centre in Abbotsford, part of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Branch. He needed to track the hornets, find their nest and prevent them from producing “mated offspring that could set the stage for subsequent nests in 2020,” he says.
Climactically, van Westendorp explains, the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), could survive on the West Coast. Its survival would depend on other challenges, such as prey, fauna and competitors. But, he adds, “we believe this particular species could manage to establish itself in BC.”
The Asian giant hornet poses a risk to humans, too, which led the media to bestow upon it its murderous sobriquet. It demonstrates aggressive behaviour when defending its nests, which are most often built on the ground, leading to a few dozen deaths in Japan every year. But, as van Westendorp points out in the hornet’s defense, being stung by other insects of the Hymenoptera order—bees, wasps, hornets and ants—can also cause death in certain circumstances.
Species in that order of Hymenoptera—the honeybees and other pollinators van Westendorp has devoted his career to protecting—are severely threatened by the Asian giant hornet. According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, a small group of Asian giant hornets can kill a honeybee hive in a few hours. If the invasive hornet were to establish itself in BC, honeybee and pollinator colonies would be at serious risk. The detrimental impacts on agriculture and food production would be equally severe.
As soon as the Nanaimo hornets were identified as the Asian giant hornet, van Westendorp worked with the beekeeping community to map sightings and zero in on their focal point. Within 24 hours, they located the nest in a downtown park and eradicated it, along with approximately 200 hornets and their queen.
“This is a success story that is quite extraordinary,” van Westendorp says. “I cannot place enough credit and appreciation onto the Nanaimo beekeepers. It was not only the first confirmed sighting of the Asian giant hornet in North America, but was also, at the time, the only confirmed eradication of a nest in North America.”
Since August 2019, other Asian giant hornets have been spotted in the region—one in the Fraser Valley, several in Washington state and two possible sightings in the Cowichan Valley.
Prior to these sightings, van Westendorp had been considering retiring after more than 40 years in the field. But, when presented with the unexpected discovery of the Asian giant hornet in Nanaimo, he says, “this was something I could not walk away from.”
Nectar for the soul
Van Westendorp recalls the day 60 years ago when bees and beekeeping entered his purview. It was on a third-grade school trip in his native Holland.
“It was a beautiful, hot summer day,” says van Westendorp. “The teacher brought us to a local beekeeper who had a couple of beehives. He opened up these colonies, and I still remember seeing these hundreds if not thousands of bees walking around in the sunshine. The scent of the wax and the honey captivated me. I still remember it as if it happened yesterday.”
Within a few years, van Westendorp started keeping bees of his own. He immigrated to Canada to attend the University of British Columbia, where he earned a bachelor of science degree with a focus in agricultural sciences, and specifically entomology, allowing him to study bees and other insects and their relationship to humans, nature and other organisms.
Frequently, the work of entomologists becomes focused on how to “control and destroy pests and diseases in crops,” explains van Westendorp. “I have always preferred the positive side of things, by promoting the cultivation and support of honeybees and other pollinators.”
After graduating from UBC, van Westendorp took a position as an apiculture research technician at Beaver Lodge, the Agriculture Canada research station near the Peace River in Alberta.
“There are legendary honey crops in the Peace River,” van Westendorp says. “You’re talking one of the best honey producing areas in the world, with harvests of 350 pounds of honey per colony per season. There are not many areas in the world where that can be produced.”
He recalls one particularly strong colony of honeybees that produced 427 pounds of honey in a single season. “We had to measure every pound. It was hard work, but very rewarding. These were honeybees that were part of a large-scale breeding program to select stock that performed well.”
Tropical bees—journey to Uganda
After two and a half years at Beaver Lake, van Westendorp accepted a position in Kampala, Uganda, in the mid-1980s, only a few years after the overthrow of the country’s genocidal despot, Idi Amin.
Van Westendorp led an apiculture development program to educate beekeepers on how to improve management techniques for their hives. The program was run by CARE, a humanitarian agency that sponsors international development projects.
He, in turn, learned about beekeeping in the tropics. The honeybees that operate in tropical environments belong to the same species—Apis mellifera—as those in North America, he explains. “But the sub-species we dealt with in Africa, Apis mellifera scutellate, is totally different in its behaviour and mannerism.”
He notes that the “killer bees” that made their way to the United States in the 1990s are descendants of these East African bees. Like the Asian giant hornet, they were given their moniker because of their highly defensive behaviour.
Save the bees
After Uganda, van Westendorp became the provincial apiarist of Alberta in 1987. Two years later, he was offered the provincial apiarist position in British Columbia, and he’s been in the role ever since. Likewise, he’s been in the PEA since 1990 and has served as a shop steward for much of his career.
As provincial apiarist, van Westendorp oversees statistics and the provincial beekeeper registry, which includes approximately 3,000 beekeepers, most of whom are hobby beekeepers concentrated in the Fraser Valley and southern Vancouver Island.
He runs the laboratory that conducts research and diagnostics related to honeybees and pollinators and manages the province’s expansive education program for beekeepers.
In the last decade, van Westendorp has observed an increase in beekeepers and in the level of public support for honeybees and pollinators. This is thanks in part to media coverage about the impact of declining bee populations on agriculture and to “save the bee” campaigns.
When he entered the industry, bees and pollinators were taken for granted, van Westendorp says. “At the time, they were thought to be guaranteed to be here at all times. Now we have learned there’s no guarantee at all.”
Honeybees are essential to agriculture; they are the most important pollinator of food crops.
Put another way, van Westendorp says, “honeybees particularly, and pollinators in general, are the spark plugs of flowering plants and agriculture. If we don’t have the spark plugs, nothing will grow.”
He gives the example of blueberries in the Fraser Valley. “Blueberries are worth multiple millions of dollars a year. But we cannot produce these crops if bees are not around. Blueberries, raspberries, apples, pears, cherries. All these flowering crops are dependent on bees.”
He adds, “The importance of bees is not a luxury. Deep down we know that without bees we are in trouble.”