Beer, Hornet Juice and Marathons
I''m finishing this column on the eve of the first day of the actual
new millenium. The start of a new millenium is always a time for
reflection, even more so when one has just marked his 73rd
birthday a few days earlier. But, I''ll leave it to Brian Trumbore
to reflect upon the sad state of the world today. Instead, I''d like
you to join me in a toast to a new year and a new millenium and
wish ourselves and everyone else all the best.
The beverage contained in the glass you raised may have been
the conventional bubbly. On the other hand, from what I''ve read
in Brian''s columns on this Web site, it wouldn''t surprise me if his
choice were a Coors Light. Which brings me to three brief items
that I found belatedly in the November 20, 2000 Chemical and
Engineering News (C&EN). One was a report that the National
Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) was urging us to drink
beer with our Thanksgiving dinner. Unfortunately, I found this
article too late for last Thanksgiving, and we had our usual wine
with our bird. If you''re a skeptic, you probably think that the
NBWA had a vested interest in urging consumption of this
beverage. However, in the holiday spirit, I''m sure that they were
only trying to revive the tradition set by our Pilgrim fathers on
the very first Thanksgiving, which did indeed include beer.
In fact, it seems that America''s early history was strongly
influenced by beer. Back in those days, the water supplies were
not very dependable and the water was liable to contain harmful,
or even deadly microbes. Brewing beer rendered the water used
in its preparation safer for human consumption by doing in those
nasty microbes. Consequently, a hefty supply of the brew
accompanied the hundred or so pilgrims on the Mayflower when
they left England in 1620. They actually had planned to end up
in Virginia. However, on landing much farther north than
Virginia, they were running low on supplies and decided to stay
put. As William Bradford wrote, "....our victuals being much
spent, especially our beer." Who knows what might have
happened if those straitlaced Pilgrims had ended up down South?
Would today''s Southerners have a Boston accent? Or perhaps at
the Derby it would be Sam Adams instead of those mint juleps?
The second C&EN item concerned a beverage that really piqued
my interest - hornet juice! I''ve been stung by a hornet and never
considered it a possible source of a libation. Yet, hornet juice is
given some credit for enhancing the performance of Naoko
Takahashi, winner of the women''s marathon at the Sydney
Olympics. As a 100% natural drink, imbibing it does not lead
the athlete into difficulties with the Olympic rules prohibiting
performance-enhancing drugs. Ms. Takahashi is said to have
drunk the stuff both before and after her winning performance.
The hornet that stung me was not very big so I assumed it would
take lots of hornets to make much juice. Then I read that the
insect in question is the 3-inch long giant killer hornet. That''s
one big hornet! And the drinking of hornet juice apparently is
not just based on some old wives'' tale, but on scientific research
performed by a Professor Abe and coworkers at the Institute of
Physical and Chemical Research (ICPR) in Japan.
Naturally, I wanted to know more about hornet juice and, sure
enough, the Web is loaded with sites reporting on this stuff. I
had obviously missed many stories on the newswires concerning
Takahashi and the juice. My Web surfing has clarified a number
of points. First, the juice is not from the stomachs of those 3-
inch adult hornets but rather from hornet grubs prior to growing
up. The adult hornets have to go out and find insects to chew up
and carry back to their nests to feed those hungry grubbies. The
latter aren''t all that small themselves, growing up to about two
inches in length. The grubs gobble up the chewed insects and
convert that tasty food item into a liquid. The adult hornet then
taps a grub on its little head. The grub dutifully proffers a drop
or so of this clear liquid which the adult gratefully accepts and
feeds upon. Surprisingly, the soft blobby grubs are able to
handle the chewed insect diet but the adult hornet has a tiny
digestive tract that can''t handle solids. The adult depends on the
grubs to supply the hornet juice for its own sustenance. To me,
this dependence of the adult on the offspring for its food supply
is weird. I don''t know if similar cases occur elsewhere in nature.
It is not a piece of cake if you''re a worker in this field. The
research required field trips to the hornets'' nests to harvest
enough juice to carry out experiments. Those 3-inch adult
hornets pack quite a wallop and kill about 40 people every year!
The researchers wisely wear protective clothing and hard hats
visiting a nest, which contains several thousands of grubs. Juice
from about 80 nests was collected for the research studies. Their
analyses showed the juice to contain some 17 amino acids that
they could reproduce in the lab. They tested the juice on mice
and on students on exercise bikes (only the students rode the
bikes). The subjects drinking the hornet juice performed about
twice as well as those who didn''t, consistent with the adult
hornets'' marathon flights to find insects for their hungry kids.
The scientists then worked with the Meiji Milk Products
Company to perfect a drink that was palatable to humans, and I
would assume to Ms. Takahashi. The rest is marathon history.
My friend Takashi tells me that the mixture of 17 amino acids is
called Vespa Amino Acid Mixture (VAAM) and that VAAM is
the name of the product marketed by Meiji Milk. I checked out
Meiji Milk and it is a large dairy products company in Japan that
markets ordinary milk, ice cream and yogurt, leading the country
in sales of the latter two items. It also develops pharmaceuticals
and sells Coca Cola''s Minute Maid brand juices in Japan.
According to an article written by David Harrison of the
Telegraph Group, Ltd., Ms. Takahashi preceded her Sydney
Olympics victory with a record-setting women''s marathon time
of 2 hours, 21 minutes and 47 seconds at the Asian games in
Bangkok. By way of comparison, I happen to have the records
of the 1997 Atlantic City Half-Marathon. Our estimable editor,
Brian Trumbore, ran in that event, finishing in 216th place (out
of 400 finishers) with a time of 1:57:22. In other words, Ms.
Takahashi completed a full marathon, taking only 25 minutes
longer than Brian took for half a marathon. I''m reasonably sure
that Brian, however, did not have the benefit of hornet juice.
The third C&EN tidbit was about a beverage about which I am
more than a little skeptical. I found promotions for "Penta-
hydrate" on numerous Web sites. However, the claims are
certainly not in accord with my understanding of chemistry. And
the fact that I found a debunking of the stuff on a Web site called
quackery didn''t generate a sense of credibility. The claims
include one that they have succeeded in making the water
molecules cluster as pentamers, clusters containing five
molecules of water. There are claims that drinking it has
beneficial effects on maladies ranging from asthma to heavy
metal poisoning. Also the beverage is touted as being rich in
oxygen. I tend to think I get a goodly supply of oxygen as it is.
As for me, I''ll stick to my occasional beer and my more frequent
gin and tonics. In the highly unlikely event that I attempt to run
a marathon, I''ll go for the hornet juice. If there''s evidence that it
might help my golf game, I may even try it sooner!
Allen F. Bortrum