I'd been running for a few hours now. My peripheral vision took in the dying red sun behind the stunning cliffs of the Jurassic coast while the wind howled into my face and made my eyes stream. My quads and calves burned on the steep ascent and I was breathing deep into the very bottom of my lungs, but I was still strangely alert, still pounding strongly past the 20 mile-mark—a point when I'd usually be an aching, sweating carcass. I was light-headed. My brain trembled with endorphins and I felt like I could just keep going. Why? Because I'd drunk hornet vomit.
A new wave of sports nutrition has legs. Six of them in fact, as well as a head, thorax, abdomen and quite often an antenna and wings. I've been experimenting with the delicately refined spew of the oosuzumebachi, otherwise known as the Japanese giant hornet or the giant sparrow bee. I buzzed up that final hill part man, tiny part giant hornet, feeling a tangible exhilaration from the Vespa amino acid mixture (VAAM) I had imported from Japan to help with my endurance running. I'm not some kind of bug fetishist, either: The US sports nutrition market is now waking up to the great potential of little critters as a natural protein with all the right amino acids and no chemical processes, too.
Insects don't always get the respect they deserve, but how many times have you been amazed by the defiant resilience of a fly that has escaped your repeated swatting with a rolled up magazine? Insects punch well above their bodyweight when it comes to lifting, running, jumping, flying, and travelling comparatively huge distances. If it wasn't for the impossible physics of increasing the size of an exoskeleton, I'm sure a happy band of worker ants would gleefully relieve us of the child labor issues in the world.
Pound for pound, insects are athletic kings. At five centimeters long, travelling up to 100km a day and able to lift up to six pounds in weight, the giant hornet is the Delta Force assassin of the bug world.
There has been growing evidence on the secretions of hornets—which have long been a delicacy in Japan (think hornet sashimi and wasp crackers)—for a while now. Biochemist Takashi Abe investigated the stamina of these magnificent flying machines and found a unique combination of 17 amino acids taken from the saliva of baby hornets. He then pioneered experiments with hornet potion on swimming mice (imagine them in lanes with rubber hats) and proved in 1995 in Japanese Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine that the mixture burns fat and reduces fatigue during long bouts of exercise.
According to Abe, it also seemed to improve physical endurance in humans, and he developed the sports nutrition drink sold as VAAM in Japan, which is now a lucrative industry there. Marathoner Naoko Takahashi won gold in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney and broke further world records. The Japanese 100km team won in the 2007 world championships, and mountaineer Tamae Watanabe climbed Everest. All were firing on VAAM.
A mate and I dabbled with the synthetic version of hornet juice, made by Nature Sport Science in New Zealand, when we ripped open the extra-terrestrial purple packet during the ONER, a gruelling 24-hour, 80 mile race down the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. We gasped down the powder after about 18 hours and licked the wrapper clean, finishing inside the 24-hour time cut off physically wrecked but strangely focused. We had also been ramming everything from fizzy sherbet snakes to tramadol down our throats, though, so it was a bit tricky to tell what had been affecting us when we also had not slept in 30 hours.
So I decided to be more scientific and do a very long solo run fuelled on breakfast and hornet secretions alone. The science behind the VAAM is in metabolizing the fat reserves in your body rather than using carbs as your fuel source. As Abe said in his report, "this amino acid combination delivers completely new function." I made sure I didn't eat for three hours before my run so my body would not use too much glycogen and then consumed the VAAM sachet (they taste a bit like a grapefruit Alka Seltzer) and set off 40 minutes later.
I felt sluggish for the first seven miles, like I often do, though my stomach was gurgling quizzically. At around 12 miles I started to feel a dawn rising, and then, at mile 15, I overtook a man on a mountain bike, which might have been a bizarre coincidence (he was advancing in years and more mollusk than insect class) but it has never happened to me before. I made 20 miles feeling much better than I did in the first five, which I feel confident I can attribute to the hornet juice. It's definitely worth further investigation in different fields—raves, military stamina, and revision all-nighters, maybe.
The US market is certainly starting to believe in insect power. There's a company called Vespa CV-25 and some other—Bitty Foods, Chapul, Exo—that have sprung up, offering insect protein snacks. Exo, a new company that manufactures cricket protein bars by mega-mixing around 40 crickets per bar, had the foresight to seek the culinary advice of Kyle Connaughton, former head of research at Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck restaurant, and have mixed the cricket flour with a more tasty ingredients like cashew and honey. They have already sold out of their original production run—obviously the new breed of cross-training paleo dieters have a taste for bugs as well as grass-fed beef. As Exo's founder Gabi Lewis says, "Crickets are very high quality protein source and they are a low hurdle to get people into eating insects when mixed in a bar." There are bugs that haven't yet made the jump, though. "The dung beetle, which is even higher in protein, is not such an easy sell."
If insects have entered the Western diet through sports nutrition, who's to say that VAAM won't become the ultimate natural product to survive a week in Ibiza, if you can live clean but still party like a killer hornet? If you want to ride the natural insect wave, though, go for pure giant sparrow bee vomit, not the synthetic powder mixed with caster sugar. And mix up your protein smoothies with some cricket flour. It goes really well with banana, milk, and blueberries, with just vague hint of feeding time at the reptile house.