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Alaska abuzz over rise in wasp population

Michelle Theriault Boots
A wasp returns to its nest shortly before it is removed from a yard Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Wasps circle their basketball-size nest shortly before they and it are removed from a yard Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
A large wasp nest is drenched with a pyrethrin neurotoxin insecticide spray by Warren Brown of Alaska Affordable Pest Control Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
A large wasp nest is drenched with a pyrethrin neurotoxin insecticide spray by Warren Brown of Alaska Affordable Pest Control Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage. Brown then was able to knock the nest out of the tree and onto a waiting tarp, which protected the yard as a precaution from the biodegradable insecticide and allowed him to wrap up the nest.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
A large wasp nest is drenched with a pyrethrin neurotoxin insecticide spray and then knocked out of a tree by Warren Brown of Alaska Affordable Pest Control Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Wasps examine the wreckage of their nest after Warren Brown of Alaska Affordable Pest Control sprayed and then knocked it out of a tree Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Dead and dying wasps litter a tarp after Warren Brown of Alaska Affordable Pest Control sprayed and then knocked a large nest out of a tree Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
A baby wasp emerges from the cell of a wasp nest knocked out of a tree Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Warren Brown of Alaska Affordable Pest Control fields several inquiries a day about wasps.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Warren Brown of Alaska Affordable Pest Control points out larvae and an emerging baby wasp after knocking a nest out of a tree Tuesday morning August 21, 2012 in south Anchorage.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

A wasp nest dangled on Tuesday from a slender birch limb in a South Anchorage yard like an angry, buzzing pinata.

Warren Brown, clad in khakis and flannel shirt with only a pair of thin latex gloves as protection, climbed a ladder armed with a can of insecticide. He sprayed a jet of concentrated wasp-killer at the papery gray cone, which was the size of a basketball. Then he hit the nest with a long pole until it exploded with wasps and fell to the ground, broken in half.

Somehow he was left untouched.

"I don't get stung," he said.

For the Anchorage exterminator and owner of Alaska Affordable Pest Control, this is the summer of many wasps.

In Southcentral Alaska they seem to be everywhere: crashing picnics, turning mowing the lawn into navigating a minefield and sending the unlucky to doctors and hospitals. The Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center of Alaska clinic in Anchorage had seen 256 patients sick enough to seek medical attention from stings this year, says Dr. Jeffery Demain, an allergist there.

"That's a lot," he said.

Exterminators that specialize in removing wasp nests, which can pack dozens or even hundreds of stinging insects, are also busy: Brown says he's been getting between 6-10 calls each day from people desperate to get nests out of their yards.

He usually gets called when a kid has stepped on a buried nest -- the worst kind, in his opinion -- or a pet gets stung. One home he visited had six nests in a single yard.

"I've seen some summers (of high wasp activity)," he said. "But nothing like this."

So are there more wasps this summer? And why?

Based on patients and observations it seems like there are more wasps in the area this summer, says Demain.

This year's wasp boom is part of a decade-long rise in stinging insect populations in Alaska documented by Demain and a Fairbanks entomologist named Derek Sikes. In 2009, the two, along with several other researchers, published a study showing a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking medical attention for stings.

Overall, the rate at which people sought treatment for stings rose by 48 percent over a decade.

In some areas like northern Alaska, defined in the study as between Barrow and Nome, the rate went up by more than 600 percent.

"They are seeing yellow jackets and wasps in places they've never seen them before," he said.

The researchers found that the increase was associated with higher overall winter temperatures that benefit queens, which have a higher chance of surviving the winter and are therefore more able to start a nest.

Last winter's record-breaking snowfall was also a boon for queens.

"If they have good insulation from the snow pack, you're going to have more queen survival," Demain said.

That all adds up to a bumper crop of wasps and a stinging -- and for some, potentially lethal -- summer and fall.

Not everyone has the same reaction to an insect sting, Demain said.

"As we get older, the risk of a fatal event goes up," he said.

Certain blood pressure drugs and beta blockers can increase the chance that a sting can be fatal, he said.

Demain said he hadn't heard of any fatalities caused by stings this summer, though they are commonly mistaken for other ailments like a heart attack.

Anchorage isn't the most wasp-prone area of the state, Demain said: Data shows that the Interior consistently reports the highest number of stings. The Kodiak Island region reports the highest number of stings by population.

Summer and fall are considered peak times for the stinging insects, he said. After a frost things should calm down.

In a South Anchorage yard Warren Brown gives the broken wasp nest another spray with insecticide.

This will not be his last nest removal of the day. He has four more scheduled.

The angry buzzing goes still.

"Like I said," he says, "I don't get stung."

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.

Photos: Wasp infestation
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS
Anchorage Daily News