Japan Abuzz Over Hornet Saliva As High-Tech Sports Drink
November 3, 2000
TOKYO (Boston Globe)

Drinking hornet saliva may not sound particularly appealing, but it’s a $50 million a year business in Japan – and many here believe the insect fluid helped propel Olympic marathoner Naoko Takahashi to her gold medal victory at the Sydney Games in September.

Amino acids taken from the saliva of baby hornets improve physical endurance in humans, according to biochemist Takashi Abe, who developed the drink five years ago. It’s sold in Japan by Meiji Milk Products as a high-tech sports drink, under the brand name Vaam, short for vespa (Latin for wasp) amino acid mixture.

The drink was first used by Japanese athletes at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but since Takahashi – Japan’s first female athlete to win an Olympic gold in track and field – chugged it both before and during her race, Vaam has drawn new attention. It has also raised some eyebrows in the sporting world, given the recent spate of illegal doping, but Olympic officials didn’t consider Vaam a drug.

“Amino acids are just milk, egg, meat. They’re the same thing as food,” said Abe, a researcher at the Japanese government-funded Institute of Physical and Chemical Research.

Abe has spent more than 20 years studying hornets and has grown to respect the misunderstood, oft-feared insects. “The hornet is strong. It’s always working, and it needs a lot of energy. That’s why I tried to measure their effect on exercise,” said Abe.

Hornets fly a whopping 70 miles per day, especially remarkable considering they weigh about 2 grams, making them one of the heaviest of all flying insects. Unlike bees, which feast on pollen, hornets eat other insects. Carrying them back to the nest adds another gram to their weight.

Because of their constricted trunks, adult hornets can’t eat their catch. Instead, they feed them to their young larvae, and then in a new twist on nursing, swallow the babies’ saliva. That’s the source of the hornet’s strength.

Abe tested his amino acid mixture on swimming mice and found that it works to improve physiological condition during endurance exercises. The mixture apparently burns fat and reduces muscle fatigue during exercise.

In 1995, Abe published extensive details of his analysis in the Japanese Journal of Physical Fitness and Sports Medicine. He is now holed up in his lab to come up with a stronger formula that he hopes could be used for “diets or the extension of life,” he said. Beyond that, he’s not talking. “It’s something secret,” said Abe.

He’s also moved beyond hornets, and is exploring the medicinal value of poisonous snakes and fish. He thinks they might provide some cardiovascular benefits.

Takahashi, still an amateur athlete, is not allowed to promote Vaam, although expectations are that her connection with the drink will help fuel sales.

Meiji has plans to try to market the drink in the United States. Another company, called Vespa, already markets a hornet drink in the United States that it says is based on Abe’s research, but the biochemist says that product is only made with hornet extract, as opposed to amino acids, and should not be mistaken for the real thing.