Whether mowing lawns or chasing Pokemon, Alaskans beware: Wasps and bees are bad this summer


Been stung by a wasp, bee or hornet during this warmer-than-usual Alaska summer? You're hardly alone.

Pest management companies have been slammed with calls, wasp- and hornet-kill-sprays are flying off the shelves at local stores, and some medical providers are reporting an uptick in allergic reactions. Southcentral is seeing a high level of human interaction — in some cases, life-threatening — with a variety of stinging insects.

Teresa Combs-Fisher went for a lunchtime run Wednesday near Campbell Creek in Anchorage when she decided to extend her route to hunt for more Pokemon in "Pokemon Go," a mobile game that challenges players to capture virtual creatures using real-world mapping and GPS technology.

Combs-Fisher said she'd been dodging "a bunch of big, puffy bees," on her run. Suddenly, distracted by her phone, she felt a sharp pain on her chest.

"As soon as I felt it, I was like clawing at my skin, which got all red," said Combs-Fisher, a 31-year-old who works at the Alaska Department of Public Safety, in a phone interview. Another runner stopped to help. Combs-Fisher couldn't see the stinger protruding from her skin, but the other runner could and swiped it away.

"You know, if you think you're allergic or you know you're allergic you should probably go to the hospital right now," the other runner advised, Combs-Fisher recalled. She didn't know what kind of reaction she might have, but as she walked, she started experiencing worrying symptoms.

"I feel really tingly and burny, and my heart rate is through the roof," Combs-Fisher said. Her vision began to "sparkle." She called 911, breathing heavily, unsure if it was due to running in 70-degree heat or having a more dangerous allergic reaction.


Firefighters arrived in just moments. Turns out, she wasn't allergic to bees, but was experiencing "a lot of painful, burning, stabbing feelings."

But the worst part may have been the sting of embarrassment when she confessed to the firefighters why she hadn't been paying better attention.

"Yeah, I was just trying to find Pokemon, I wasn't looking at what I was doing," Combs-Fisher said, laughing.

Combs-Fisher was lucky. Some who are stung experience much more severe reactions.

Dr. Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska in Anchorage, said there had already been two such cases on Thursday — and that was just at the beginning of the workday.

"Just now, it's 9 in the morning, we had two that have had near-fatal events already today, and we had two yesterday," Demain said, adding only about 4 percent of stings cause anaphylactic reactions.

Representatives at two of Anchorage's largest hospitals, Providence Alaska Medical Center and Alaska Regional Hospital, each said there hasn't been an appreciable increase in stings treated at the facilities so far in 2016.

But at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in the Valley, there have been 38 patients treated for bee or wasp stings from May 1 to July 12, more than doubling the 15 patients treated during the same time in 2015. That's according to numbers provided by Alan Craft, director of marketing and public relations at the hospital.

And Demain said in his estimation, there's been a "terrible uptick" in stings so far this summer, which is in keeping with trends in recent years.

"I would say we've seen a tremendous uptick in not only frequency but also severity," Demain said.

He believes the primary culprit is yellow jackets, a type of wasp that nests in the ground and can be stirred up by common summer activities like mowing the lawn. But most patients aren't able to positively identify what kind of insect actually stung them.

Demain attributes the rise in stinging insect activity to Alaska's recent mild winters.

"Because we're not having hard freezes, they're surviving the winter better," Demain said, which means more colonies in the summertime and an increased likelihood of human interaction.

Those colonies have kept local pest-control businesses busy. According to Larry Jones, statewide operations manager for American Pest Management, his technicians have been "slammed" with calls for bees, wasps and hornets.

The company is closed Saturday and Sunday, and people find hives and nests while hanging out outside over the weekend, so they've been inundated with calls to start the workweek.

"On Monday, it's just a bee day, because everybody's got a problem," Jones said. And some properties have as many as 10 hives or nests, he said.

For the do-it-yourselfers wanting to take care of an infestation without calling a professional, wasp spray is a popular option — if it can be found, that is.


Nancy Lind, head of housewares at the True Value hardware store on Jewel Lake Road in Anchorage, said she received a shipment of 96 cans of wasp spray on Wednesday. It went on the sales floor around 10:30 a.m. It was all gone by 6 p.m.

"For lack of a better word, it flies off the shelf," Lind said, adding about two-thirds of calls to the store lately have been inquiries about spray.

It's not just bees, either: Jones said many other insects, including carpenter ants and flies, also appear to be a bigger problem than in past years. He also credited recent mild winters.

"When you have no winter kill, and things of that nature, the population is naturally more, because there's more coming out," he said.

Jones said the increased business isn't unprecedented, recalling a summer eight or nine years ago when the activity was similar. In 2006, two people in Fairbanks died after having anaphylactic reactions to yellow jacket stings.

"We have had cycles … when it gets hot and dry like this the bee population, the stinging population seems to thrive in that time," he said.

2012 also seemed to be a bad year for wasps, according to an Anchorage Daily News article at that time.

The trend of increasing stinging insect activity appears to be long-term and spans almost the entire state, too; a study co-authored by Demain in 2009 said the number of people seeking treatment for stings in Anchorage and the Valley increased by about 47 percent on average between 1999 and 2006. In Northern Alaska, the rate increased by more than 600 percent in the same time frame.


As for Combs-Fisher, she's not letting her unfortunate encounter with a bee deter her from trying to catch 'em all in "Pokemon Go" — she said she went out looking for Pokemon on Thursday, the day after she'd been stung.

"I did bravely confront the potential enemy yet again this morning and I did catch two Pokemon, but didn't catch any more bee stings," she laughed.

Ben Anderson

Ben Anderson is a former writer and editor for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.