For those that have been making the most of the pleasant, warm weather that has impacted Southcentral Alaska this summer, bee aware.
Now that summer 2016 is beginning to show its age, the wild swarms of bees and wasps that have made their presence felt on the Kenai Peninsula are also slowly fading, but the danger still lurks.
A casual saunter into the woods or trails that pockmark the landscape of Kenai, Soldotna, Nikiski and Sterling will stir up hives that have been meticulously created by the stinging insects. For those that have felt the wrath of a hive that’s been disturbed, pay attention.
The activity level of wild bees and wasps occasionally rises every few years or so, and this summer has certainly been one of them. A mild winter that produced little snow is one cause for the abundance of wasps. With an early spring, the rise of wasps that have the capacity to survive the winter gives birth to bigger and badder nests.
According to a published article from the Soldotna branch of the Cooperative Extension Service with the University of Alaska Fairbanks, honeybees in Alaska do not “overwinter,” or survive through the winter. They must start anew each spring, slowly building up their nests.
On the other hand, wasps and hornets are able to get a faster start because the mated queen can make it through the winter, holing up in a sheltered location to effectively hibernate, and when the weather warms, to start the new colony.
While many runners, hikers and bikers are able to walk away from a sting with just the pain and a welt, others are not so fortunate.
It was summer 2015 that saw Soldotna High School runner Olivia Hutchings suffer a sting from an unwieldy wasp. Following a runner-up finish at the 2014 state meet her junior year, Hutchings was stung while on a run one early fall day in 2015, and the resulting reaction quite possibly ended her college hopes.
“It was her senior year, and she came across the finish line and didn’t know where she was,” recalled Shawn Hutchings, Olivia’s father. “She was almost blacked out, and had to lay down after the race.
“The next race, she totally passed out at the (two-kilometer) mark.”
Hutchings had suffered a severe allergy attack that limited her lung capacity to a shocking 50 percent, leaving her wildly short of breath. In a 5K race, it’s simply undoable.
“It changed her whole life,” said Soldotna cross-country coach Ted McKenney. “I think it’s because of that she’s not going to run in college. Those couple years she lost.”
The symptoms persisted long enough that Hutchings was not able to run at the state meet in October 2015, where she likely would have been favored to win without the issues.
Even when track season opened nearly six months later, Hutchings’ lung capacity was still not fully recovered, when it was measured at 80 percent. It continued to hurt her performances in the 1,600 and 3,200 meter races.
Hutchings had several offers on the table to run in college, but after missing most of her senior year, the opportunities vanished.
Shawn Hutchings said the doctor was not able to confirm whether the sting was the root cause of the problems, but said that was the leading theory.
“She had a lot of opportunities, and that squashed them,” he said. Olivia now attends Scottsdale Community College, and plans to transfer to Arizona State, but unfortunately not to run.
McKenney said he has seen a massive spike in bees and wasps around the peninsula this summer, adding that up to half of his Stars running team has been stung while running on the Tsalteshi Trails and surrounding woods in Soldotna.
“There’s not a day gone by in practice that someone hasn’t gotten stung,” he said. “Sometimes it’s up to three people a day.”
Even from his own deck on Robinson Loop in Soldotna, McKenney said that he can hear the buzzing from a nearby grassy field.
Fortunately for McKenney, none of this year’s SoHi runners are allergic to bee stings, but after the Hutchings ordeal, he makes sure to know about any of his athletes’ allergies.
According to the Cooperative Extension Service, removing a hive near a home presents the best alternative. When getting rid of a nest, it’s best to do so in the evening, after the worker bees have returned to the hive.
One way of doing so is to quickly capture the nest in an airtight plastic bag, covering the hive in one fell swoop and tying off the top after breaking the attachment. From there, it is recommended to put the bag in a freezer to ensure the nest is completely neutralized.
Another method of getting rid of a nest is to use a hornet spray.
The method to figuring out if a sting victim is allergic is to see if the reaction occurs in parts of the body other than the location of the sting, according to the Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna. That includes swelling, hives, difficult breathing and swelling around the neck region.
As a coach at Solid Rock Bible youth camp just three miles out of Soldotna, McKenney said he has made sure to have an EpiPen available for any occasion. An EpiPen is an injector about the size of a common pen which delivers an instant dose of Epinephrine, or known in the common world as adrenaline.
The chemical that bee allergy sufferers use to counterattack the symptoms of a sting helps to narrow the blood vessels and open the airways in lungs. In an allergy attack, it could be the difference between life and death.
However, in a study done by the New York Times, the price of an EpiPen has skyrocketed from $70 to $150 to well over $600 in the last nine years. McKenney said that considering the alternate outcome of a bee sting to an easily affected person is enough to make him cough up the dough.
“I don’t have to have one (with the high school kids), but I would if I had a kid that is allergic,” he said.
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