North, to Alaska: Yellow Jackets Expanding Range?

When it comes to the alleged impact of man-caused global warming and the scientific proof of either its existence or non-existence, I’ve remained fairly ambivalent on the subject as the debate continues on Capitol Hill and in the media.

However, a new study by a University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher may or may not have anything to do with rising temperatures in The Last Frontier.

What piqued my interest was the study subject—the yellow-jacket wasp—and the species’ apparent expansion into parts of Alaska in increasing numbers.

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I’ll wager I’m not alone among sportsmen when I admit to hating yellow jackets more than any other winged, hoofed, pawed or slithering critter found in mountains, fields or swampland. I’ve had close encounters with nefarious snakes, coyotes, bobcats, boars, javelinas, skunks—even mountain lions—but if I had the power to magically remove a living creature from the planet, my first choice would be the carnivorous, violently aggressive wasp with the black and yellow posterior.

While researching a tenfold spike in the number of yellow jackets in the Fairbanks area during 2006, Derek Sikes, entomologist and curator of insects at the University of Alaska Museum, became convinced that the notorious stinging wasps are indeed spreading northward. The emergency room at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital that summer treated 178 patients with insect stings, about four times more than normal. In addition, two men died from wasp encounters.

Since it’s darn-near impossible to actually count the number of yellow jackets in a region (they’re hard to trap and putting on those tiny radio tracking collars is a pain!), Sikes and his associate, Dr. Jeffrey Demain, the director of the Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Center of Alaska, decided to investigate the state’s medical records.

Reviewing a database of Alaska’s Medicaid patients, Demain found a seven-fold increase in insect stings in northern Alaska within the past decade—from an average of 16 people (per 100,000) per year between 1999 and 2001, to 119 people a year from 2004 to 2006.

The study results appear in this month’s Alaska Epidemiology Bulletin.

The Fairbanks News-Miner reports that all other regions of the state--with the exception of Southeast Alaska—also saw in increase in stings requiring medical treatment. In the Interior, which includes Fairbanks, insect stings increased from 260 a year per 100,000 patients in 1999 to an average of 437 a year between 2000 and 2006.

Any hunter who’s battled these bloodthirsty beasts while attempting to quarter an elk in the mountains of Colorado in the early fall knows how excruciatingly painful its sting can be.

Besides that, about 4 percent of the population is especially susceptible to yellow jacket venom.

“These (venomous) chemicals not only can cause hives and itching, but they can cause airways to close; the larynx can close. You can have an asthma-like attack,” said Demain.

The study also addresses—though without conclusion—that wasp populations in Alaska are possibly increasing due to warming, considering that average temperatures in northern Alaska have risen about 4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, Demain said.