One yellow jacket wasp fends off another while feeding in spruce needles in Kenai on Tuesday afternoon. Each autumn stings increase as the ornery bugs multiply in number.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Bees are coming to the end of their cycle in central Kenai Peninsula neighborhoods, but not before many stop for a bite of residents or their pets.
"What we actually call bees are hornets or yellow jackets," said Dr. Tim Bowser, at Soldotna Animal Hospital, where a number of pets have been brought recently, suffering from stings.
Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna, said one way to distinguish right now is "wasps and yellow jackets are eating fruit, honey bees and bumble bees are on flowers collecting nectar.
"Normally honey bees are docile and wasps are aggressive," she said.
While bees are helpful to the garden, stings from bees and wasps can cause serious problems in humans and animals, particularly those with a hypersensitivity to them.
"Whether or not people need to bring their pets in (to see the veterinarian) depends on the amount of toxin and the reaction to the sting," Bowser said.
Pets and humans can get anaphylactic reactions to bee stings, which can be "very severe, very dangerous," according to Bowser.
Besides the initial pain of the sting, allergic reactions manifest in excessive swelling around the nose, eyes and throat and in extreme cases, swelling can cut off the airway and lead to death.
People who are hypersensitive or have pets that display severe swelling after a sting, should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Swelling often occurs immediately following the sting, but can occur up to 24 hours later.
Bowser said, "We use injectable steroids and injectable antihistamine if the face or neck swells and interferes with breathing." Oral antihistamines such as Benadryl can also be used by humans and for their pets.
Bowser said he once had a friend who nearly died from a catastrophic reaction to a sting.
While honey bee behavior is strictly defensive, causing no problem unless their hive is disturbed or humans come in direct contact with them by stepping on them or swatting at them, wasps and hornets are extremely defensive of their nest areas and become aggressive whenever they are disturbed.
Chumley said, right now her office is receiving numerous reports of wasps taking over people's strawberry beds.
"Strawberries are their favorites," she said. "You'll see bites taken out of the berries and you may find a wasp emerging from a strawberry."
She said in order to avoid getting stung, people should pick their berries either early in the morning or in the evening when it is cooler.
"Wasps are most active when it's hot," she said.
In some parts of the country, honey bees overwinter, but not in Alaska. Here they must be reintroduced every year, or be deliberately overwintered with the help of human bee keepers.
With wasps, it's a little different.
"Generally, only the fertilized queen overwinters," Chumley said.
Then in the spring, she emerges from her sheltered location and begins the colony of wasps by herself.
At first, she will create a few workers who go out and bring back food, while she stays in the nest to create more workers and drones, according to Chumley. The increased numbers of wasps go to work enlarging the nest.
The emergency room at Central Peninsula Hospital is not seeing a lot of people with a single sting, but has seen a couple of people with a lot of stings, said hospital spokeswoman Bonnie Nichols.
"We're not seeing anything out of the ordinary," she said.
Chumley said, right now, the wasp and yellow jacket population is at its peak, and now is a time when wildflowers are dying off, so bees are seeking nectar in other places, including hanging flower baskets around people's homes and businesses.
"In a few weeks, we're gonna get a nice little frost, and (the wasps) will all die," Chumley said.
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