Stinging Wasps Moving North Due to Warming?

Eliza Barclay
for National Geographic News
July 16, 2008

Insect stings have been on the rise in Alaska, and experts think that global warming could be to blame.

A recent report shows steady increases statewide in patients seeking medical care for insect stings.

The report also noted that in 2006 two people in Fairbanks died due to anaphylactic shock after being stung by small hornet relatives known as yellow jackets—the first time such deaths have been reported in the city.

"What we are seeing is a tremendous spike in the number of yellow jackets," said study co-author Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Center of Alaska in Anchorage.

He and colleagues estimate that in 2006 the town was plagued by ten times more yellow jackets than average.

"We think climate and temperature changes are creating a more favorable environment for their survivability," Demain said. Milder winters and earlier springs, for example, could be helping the insects to thrive.

"[And] the more yellow jackets, the more sting events we see."

Demain and other experts believe this scenario could be part of a worldwide trend of stinging insects spreading northward in response to climate change.

"Many species will migrate north as their ecological niche moves northward, and those movements will be strongest in the highest latitudes," said Robert Correll, global change director of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

"What drives them is temperature."

Wasps on the Rise

Using a Medicaid database of 132,000 Alaskans, Demain and colleagues saw that sting incidence rates per 100,000 patients went from 346 in 1999 to 455 in 2006.

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