Murder Hornets: It’s What’s for Dinner

I freak out when the media covers something that I have even a modest amount of specialized knowledge in. Why? Because the lamestream media almost always gets the story completely wrong. This leaves you to wonder what else the media is screwing up.

When people who know that I keep bees started texting me about the so-called “murder hornet” I smelled social media click bait trap. Even the allegedly reliable New York Times did a whole podcast on the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia) that consisted of an interview with a single beekeeper and a lot of scary music. Did any of these journalists, including the New York Times bother to call up an entomologist who specialized in hornets? Not so much.

Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology, UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology had this to say,

The colony everyone is hyperventilating over was actually found on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, last September when it was destroyed and then a single, dead hornet was found in December in Blaine, Wash. There is no evidence that there are any more hornets in the vicinity of Vancouver or anywhere else on the West Coast.

So it’s not even recent news.

My inner Jungian doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that, during a pandemic that originated in Asia, we’d see a viral news story that contains the words “murder” and “Asian.” Could it be that the story of a scary, foreign insect acts as a way of deflecting, on a subconscious level, blame for our own stupidity in the face of a crisis we could well have been better prepared for? I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that the “Africanized” bee scare came around the same time as the infamous Willie Horton attack ad. I’m not asserting a simple causal relationship between insect scares and racialized politics, but let’s just say that our storytelling tends towards the monstrous (with race and class overtones) during times of crisis. The “murder” in the name isn’t even an accurate translation. The Japanese word actually means “yellow” reflecting the color of the insect.

Could the Asian giant hornet become a problem in North America? Yes. But there’s no evidence that it has yet. And, as this insect lives in forests, its habitat would be limited if it did. Giant Asian hornets don’t live in cities nor do they tolerate hot or cold weather.

If they do establish here, at least they are edible and, apparently, taste like French Fries according to entomologist Matan Shelomi. There’s pictures and harvesting directions to prove it if you follow the link. The murder hornet looks tasty when deep fried. But what doesn’t?

For more information see this fact sheet on the Asian giant hornet from Washington State University.

If you’d like to meme about “murder” hornets there’s a Facebook group for you.

There’s a term for when the media covers something that you have specialized knowledge in and the horror that ensues when you see how badly they get it wrong that I can’t recall and it’s bugging me (so to speak). This term/phrase is named after a best selling author who noted this phenomena–please leave a comment if you can help me remember!

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The Perfect Crisis Vegetable: Prickly Pear Cactus

Unsurprisingly, during this crisis, the Root Simple inbox and phone line has come alive again with questions about growing vegetables. My response is always the same. Grow the stuff that’s easy to grow in your climate. To that I’d add that you should consider edible perennials.

In our climate the king of edible perennials is the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica, but note that there are many other edible Opuntia varieties). The young pads (nopales in Spanish) are coming into season right now. The fruit, called tunas, are ready in the fall.

With prickly pear cactus you get a vegetable and a fruit in one easy to grow package. It’s so easy to grow that your problem will be keeping it from taking over your entire garden and your neighbor’s garden. Plant things like broccoli and carrots and, depending on your soil and experience level as a gardener, you’re in for a lot more work and, likely, disappointment. Trust me, I’ve killed a lot of vegetables in the past twenty years. I’ve never once killed a prickly pear cactus.

Luther Burbank’s allegedly spineless prickly pear.

We have one specimen that came with the house and another that I picked up a few years ago: Luther Burbank’s spineless variety that, well, isn’t actually spineless.

My favorite method for preparing and eating the pads is to scrape them with a knife to remove the spines (you don’t need to peel the skin off). I then chop and boil the pads for five minutes to reduce the sliminess. Then I fry the pads in a pan with onions. You can also just chop the pads and eat them raw in a salsa with tomatoes, onions and hot peppers.

Some other resources from our blog for what to do with prickly pear fruit:

A prickly pear fruit cocktail

Juicing prickly pear fruit

Prickly pear jam recipe

If you’re not in our warm and dry-ish region a good resource for other edible perennials is Eric Toensmeier’s book Edible Perennial Vegetable Gardening.

Can’t grow prickly pear? Tell us your favorite easy to grow edible perennial in the comments!

Olive Curing Update

Last October I started curing the olives from the Frantoio tree we planted in the parkway. The olives are finally ready to eat just in time for the pandemic. I used UC Davis’ handy publication, Olives: Safe Methods for Home Pickling as my guide and chose a Sicilian style brine method that yields a slightly bitter result. Basically, you make a brine solution with pickling salt (one pound salt per gallon of water) and vinegar (5% acetic acid–1 1/2 cups per gallon). To this I added some garlic and hot pepper flakes. I went light on the seasoning which, I think, was a good idea. Following the suggestion on the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook blog I changed out the brine when the water darkened—about once a month.

What the olives looked like at the beginning of the curing process.

The verdict: harvesting and curing olives is a lot of work but well worth the effort. It took six months of curing to leach out the bitter phenolic compounds in the fruit.

Some things I learned in the process:

  • Here in Southern California, where we have a plague of olive fruit flies, you need to set a McPhail trap baited with torula yeast lures and change out the bait once a month. I set a reminder on my calendar to do this.
  • When you harvest you need to separate the maggot infested fruit from the good fruit. This is easy to do if a bit of a chore. The signs of maggots are obvious–a scar on the surface of the fruit.
  • You can harvest both green and the more mature black olives from the same tree and cure them both together. Olives are ready to pick when the juice is cloudy in late September. I have to error on the side of picking early to stay ahead of the maggots.
  • I planted the tree in 2012 and I’d guess that 2018 was probably the first year that I would have had enough olives to make it worth curing. The tree really exploded, in terms of growth, after about three years in the ground and I’d guess it’s around fifteen feet tall and ten feet wide as of 2020. If I had to choose a tree again I might go with one that produces larger fruit. That said, I’m still happy with the results of this multi-year experiment.

I should also note that the tree itself is beautiful, especially when the silvery underside of the leaves shimmer in a light breeze. Olive trees have deep symbolic associations in ancient Mediterranean cultures and the tree has an average lifespan of 500 years. There are a few trees, over 2,000 years old, that still produce fruit.

If you live in the U.S. but not in a climate that supports olives, consider buying domestic olive oil and cured olives. Especially with olive oil, a lot of the imported stuff is adulterated garbage.

Saturday Linkages: Wall of Cats

Albrecht Dürer’s Little Owl (Kleine Eule) from 1508.

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