What's the buzz? Wasp population booming

Posted: Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Anyone who has stepped outside in the past month probably has noticed the deluge of flying critters in the air.

It's not just a buzz.

According to Janice Chumley, the integrated pest management technician at the Kenai-Soldotna office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cooperative Extension Services, it's quite likely that bug populations are high this year, particularly for wasps, the stinging insects often confused with bees.

Wasps, commonly called yellow jackets or hornets, thrive in warm weather, Chumley explained. Queens, who hibernate through the winter and start reproducing when the ground thaws, probably have taken advantage of the long, warm summer to lay more eggs than usual, she said. And with the first frost yet to come, the creatures are still swarming strong.

The Associated Press stated earlier this week that reports of wasp stings have been uncommonly high this year. The Providence Alaska Medical Center emergency room already has seen more than 30 people suffering allergic reactions from stings, up from 20 all summer last year, AP said.

Though Central Peninsula General Hospital doesn't track exact numbers, spokesperson Rhonda Price said Tuesday that emergency workers at the Soldotna hospital have seen a similar rise.

"The emergency department has noticed an increased number of stings this year," she said.

Though wasps are not members of the bee family, they often are confused with the honey-making insects. Chumley said there are differences, though. Wasps are slimmer, with yellow-and-black stripes, rather than the black fuzz of a bee. Instead of beehives, wasps build paper-like nests, often in the eaves of houses. And, while a bee can only sting once before dying, a wasp can sting over and over again.

That last difference can be problematic, as many people suffer allergies to the venom of a wasp sting. A common reaction to a sting is pain and swelling lasting about 20 minutes. Anyone who suspects that their reaction may be abnormal should seek immediate medical assistance, Chumley said.

Despite the possibility of stings, though, Chumley said wasps are not all bad.

"They prey on other insects, like mosquitoes, the flies that bite and all the other annoying things buzzing around," Chumley said.

That's why she said people don't need to rush to get rid of nests in out-of-the-way locations.

People can avoid stings by being aware of what may attract a wasp. The insects are attracted to sweet substances, like berries in the wild or a left-over soda can in the garbage. They also eat proteins, which means not only other bugs, but also meats, fish carcasses and unexpected items like dog food.

Properly storing or disposing of such items can keep wasp populations away from humans, she said.

If a person does encounter a wasp, Chumley advised against waving around and swatting at it, as such actions will aggravate the insects and encourage stinging. Also, she said, when a wasp is smashed, its body releases a chemical that sends a signal to other wasps.

"You don't want that on your body," Chumley said.

Nests located in inconvenient locations like over a doorway can be destroyed, but Chumley said people should be careful of wasps when hiking, berry picking or walking near a known nest, as the creatures tend to be more aggressive closer to their homes.

There's no need to destroy such out-of-the-way nests, which will be emptied as the wasps die out in colder weather, she said.

"Just avoid it and wait for the frost."

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