Postcards from the edge... of reality

The sign on my hotel room window looked innocuous enough, with its clunky Japanese to English translation, “Do not open window to prevent a dew drop or harmful insect entering. I was beginning Day Three of a recent visit to Japan, spending time with old friends and family (I lived in Tokyo from 1987 – 89), when something entered my room... from the natural world.

It’s true what they say, 'you hear them before you see them' - a deep rumble, like the sound of distant thunder from an approaching summer storm. The Japanese believe that if you hear the drone, you’re already dead.

It began with a ripple in my coffee that became a clatter of fine bone china as my cup resonated to the wing beat of the mother of all insects, the Godzilla of arthropods, the Suzumebachi -the Giant Japanese Hornet

Let me tell you something about this insect. For a start, you don’t mess with them. This is a hornet that’s big enough to cast a shadow on the ground as it flies overhead. It has a wingspan of 80mm and a 6mm needle sharp sting protruding from its bright yellow and black abdomen. The venom is especially potent - a cytolytic peptide and powerful neurotoxin stimulating a phospholipase reaction in the body. Masato Ono, Professor of Entomology at Tamagawa University, described the sting “like a hot nail being driven into his leg.” And that’s just for starters – at this point the venom is simply introducing itself to the nervous system. The anaphylactic shock that follows results in around 40 deaths per year in Japan.

I turned slowly to face my visitor and used the most polite form of Japanese language, known as keigo. “Ohayoo gozaimasu. Yoroshiku onegai itashimasu. Dozo, go yukuri shite kudasai,” I said bowing low. [Good morning, I’m at your service and I humbly request the same of you. Please make yourself at home]

This quite possibly saved my life. Rumour has it that the Suzumebachi react to English like the French... not very well. She eyeballed me for a good 10 seconds while hovering not more than a metre away - she was sizing me up. These fiercely predatory hornets are known to have a sweet tooth, and it was clear she could smell the honey on my toast. This hornet was also strikingly beautiful with exquisite colouring and an impeccable dress sense. I was in awe of this creature.

Me being a country boy and all, I knew that the worst thing I could do would be to try and ferry her towards the window. However, somehow in this primordial world of man and insect, the Suzumebachi and I struck an accord. I let her have some honey, and she for her part, took off and flew straight out the window when she was finished. But the story doesn’t end here.

The Suzumebachi was there at exactly the same time the next morning. How did you know it was the same hornet, I hear you say. She was missing the tip of her left antennae, probably following a fight with the larger male of the species.

Anyway, we became comfortable in each other’s company and when she realised I was not a threat to her, and I was satisfied that she wasn’t going to sting me to death, our mutual respect grew to outright friendship. She came to my room every morning and by Day Six I had dispensed with the toast and just gave her a dob of honey in a saucer. We’d spend our breakfast eating and planning the day ahead, me checking train times and her planning attack manoeuvres on tourists.

On the day of my departure we had our last breakfast together and I took an unprecedented risk. I let her sit on my finger. It was an intimate moment with one of the most dangerous creatures (gram for gram) on the planet, and probably the stupidest thing I’ve done since crashing my dad’s car in 1977.

OK, now for the analysis. Apart from the stupidity of ignoring the warning sign, what followed was a process of risk desensitisation. Not to be confused with complacency, risk desensitisation is behaviour commonly observed in workers routinely performing high risk tasks. Its central tenet is that the longer an individual is exposed to a risky environment, the more comfortable they become with the risk, and can with continued exposure, ultimately perceive no risk at all - this is called risk acclimatisation.

We experience this when we drive - the longer we're exposed to speed, the more comfortable we become with the risk of going faster, which is why people tend to get booked for speeding towards the end of their trip.

Some desensitisation to risk is inevitable, but you need to watch out for the signs of acclimatisation which include complacency, recklessness or becoming overly familiar with a task to the point of being blasé.

As for me and the hornet? I just had to be honest with her. “This is never going to work,” I said edging towards the door. “I’m a guy, you’re a hornet, and I’m not going to get hurt anymore.”


Written by Luke Sullivan, Principal Advisor- HSE

Luke’s mantra to the business is StageSafe, Every Show, Every Event and despite being a Vivienne Westwood clothes horse, he takes a very practical approach to safety.

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