SOUTHINGTON — More than 160 people signed an online petition about a “digger bee” infestation on the fields at Strong School. Parents concerned about children’s safety started the petition to alert Board of Education members and have the bees eliminated.
On Monday last week, the petition was posted to the Southington Talks Facebook group by Barbara Murphy, a parent who has two children at Strong School. By Monday afternoon there were 62 signatures and by Friday afternoon there were 165 signatures. The bees have been burrowing into nests in the soil of the fields and flying around there.
Murphy said the fields were closed on field day this year in early spring because of the problem and students could only play on the black top. She recalled her children, Carissa, a fourth-grader, and Caelin, a second-grader, along with the other students were not allowed on the fields for a few weeks because of the bees.
“There are a lot of kids with allergies and kids have gotten stung on the playground when they were outside,” said Murphy.
State entomologist Kirby Stafford said although he hasn’t been to the fields at Strong School to see what kind of bees they are, he believes they could actually be a wasp called cerceris fumipennis. The wasp feeds on emerald ash borer beetles and Stafford said the wasp is often used for bio-surveillance.
The wasps also create underground nests and are “generally not a threat” because they are not social insects like the yellow jackets that defend their nests. Underground nesting is part of where the nickname “digger bees” came from.
“A few other species can deliver a sting but you practically have to grab one for it to sting,” Stafford said.
Ball parks and school fields are places the wasps tend to create nests because of the quality of the soil.
Stafford also mentioned there is a chance the wasps could be a species called the “cicada killer” that are “large and very intimidating.” The species also burrows in the ground.
“They can sting and probably have a pretty nasty sting, but they’re not going to chase you,” Stafford said.
During a school board meeting on Thursday, another parent, Ulla Plourde, voiced her concerns about the bees. She claimed the school board hasn’t done anything about it and that it was an “unreasonable failure to act.”
School officials, including Assistant Superintendent Karen Smith, apologized to Plourde saying there has been a lack of communication. Smith said Thursday that as soon as she heard about the bee problem in the spring, she started looking into solutions. School board members and officials promised more communication throughout the process.
School board chairman Brian Goralski said if parents have an issue, he would prefer them to contact administration or board members directly instead of using social media to solve the problem.
“I wish parents would come directly to us… you don’t need petitions,” Goralski said. “People should know they can always come to the board of education and school system staff. If they are concerned about safety of kids, they should just come to us.”
Murphy and Plourde said emails were sent to board members but didn’t receive responses.
School Superintendent Tim Connellan said Thursday that he and Pete Romano, school system director of operations, have met with the health director and are working with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection on solutions.
“This is a spring problem and does not appear there is emanate danger right this moment for children returning August 28,” Connellan said Thursday.
“We want to make sure we do, do the right thing and do it the right way.”
The district will also be working with an entomologist to figure out what kind of bees are in the fields and the best way to eliminate them, said Romano.
The most important factor is student safety, he added, and said the district will be working hard to find a solution. Solutions include possibly reconditioning the field, flooding the fields, or potentially using pesticides if DEEP approves it.
“We’ve had some time to work on the issue, we’re aware of the issues, and we take it seriously,” Romano said.
Stafford confirmed that if the wasps were the two species he thinks they are, that the wasps are dormant now until next spring and summer.
“By the time schools starts, (you) won’t see any,” he said. “They’ll be around every year during summer months.”
Although the pests aren’t a problem now, parents like Murphy and Plourde want the bees eliminated so there isn’t any chance of children getting stung in the spring.
“It’s been and occurring problem,” Murphy said. “The digger bees get worse every year and burrow into the ground.”
Plourde mentioned Thursday that if a child were to get stung and suffer an attack that the school board could face lawsuits for not clearing the fields of the insects.
“This is a very possibly reality,” she said.
Connellan said Thursday that he plans to send out a summary of the problem and what the district is doing to solve it to all Strong School parents within the next few business days.