A bugged life: Warm winter could mean more insects

Posted March 11, 2012, at 9:05 p.m.

The eerily warm winter across the nation might soon get creepy.

Awakened from hibernation underground, in rotting wood and the cracks of your house, bugs are on the rise. Ants, termites, mosquitoes, ladybugs and ticks are up early and looking for breakfast.

Orkin, the pest control company, recently said its agents nationwide are reporting a 30 percent increase in calls to treat ant infestations compared with this time last year. Termite swarms do not normally show up until the end of March, but Orkin received 85 termite-control calls in February.

An Orkin branch in Maryland has already responded to mosquito sightings this year. And the National Pest Management Association issued an early warning of ticks, possibly carrying Lyme disease, lurking in back yards.

County agricultural extension agents across the country are sending out bug alerts to farmers.

“These things are cold-blooded,” said Mike Raupp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland. “Whenever we have a warm winter, they’re going to be out earlier. How do you stop them? You pray for cold weather.”

A mild winter is not great for all bugs, including some highly beneficial insects. Some were up and about when they should have been idle and hibernating, burning less energy, experts say. When this happens, they gobble the food they stored for the winter and emerge into a world where food is scarce. Many starve.

Honeybees are a perfect example. Beekeepers say the insect was probably more active this winter, one of the warmest on record. Several beekeepers said they put sugar water or water mixed with syrup near their hives, worried that queens became active in warm weather and started pumping out thousands of eggs a day.

The situation is more dire because, in much of the country, there was little snow and rain this winter. That means spring flowers may not produce the quantities of nectar needed to feed the workers and the young, and colonies will be more dependent on depleted stores of honey, pollen and water.

“I’m personally concerned that if we don’t get moisture, and have a dry year like we did last year, or even worse, it could be real interesting,” said Brian Royal, owner of Royal Bee Supply in Norman, Okla. “We need some rain. If everything’s dried up, they can’t run down to the local McDonald’s and get something. They’re just out of luck.”

Bee populations, especially colonies of wild bees, are already in trouble, having been devastated by a mysterious parasite.

Weather-related stresses make a bad situation worse. Hives of 40,000 to 60,000 domesticated bees often respond to food shortages by slowing egg production, Royal said, which leads means there will be fewer bees to build honey stores for the next winter.

“It’s a domino effect,” Royal said of the damage that can done by a winter during which it “seems like everything is running a month ahead of schedule.”

“My peach trees are in full bloom right now,” he said. “They bloom . . . it pulls moisture up . . . it goes to the flower . . . the flowers produce more nectar. But if it’s dry, they can’t make something out of nothing.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last month that “warmer-than-average temperatures were widespread across the 48 contiguous states during January.’ Nine states — including Kansas, Minnesota and the Dakotas — had January temperatures ranked among their 10 warmest.

“I don’t want to make any big pronouncements about climate, but there’s a pretty good indication this world is warming,” said Raupp, the Maryland professor. “Pests that were found only in the southern region are moving into the northern region. You’re seeing this penetration.”

For farmers, pesticide costs can become terribly expensive, Raupp said, “if you have aphids or spider mites cranking through extra generations. For pests with faster generation times, the hotter it is the more they develop.”

Aphids and psyllids, also called plant lice, are among the pests that plague farmers. Aphids are a big problem because, when feeding, they can transmit a pathogen that destroys vegetables, said Eric Natwick, an entomology farm adviser for the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Tomato psyllids — lightning fast and tremendous jumpers, for their size — are also showing up this year in California’s Imperial Valley, where Natwick works. The psyllids tend to infest produce in California’s Coachella Valley, across a desert from the Imperial, and “when I see them here, it’s unusual,” he said.

In urban areas, termites are waking up inside houses, and a homeowner who spots them has a problem. “If you notice termites in your house, you’re only going to notice Þthemå if there’s a swarm,” said Greg Baumann, vice president of training and technical services at Orkin.

Insects have the upper hand when it comes to survival of the species. “Always bet on the bug. They’ve been around for millions of years,” said Baumann, who lives near Atlanta.

Reports of early tick activity have been received from the East Coast to the Midwest, said Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association.

Vermont is no exception, according to State Entomologist Jon Turmel. “I would say, based upon the temperature and the weather, there’s a really good survival rates for ticks, and they’re out a lot earlier,” Turmel remarked.

And ticks, which are arachnids, not insects, carry Lyme disease.

Turmel sounded one positive note about the war against pests such as aphids and destructive caterpillars. If they’re developing quickly in warm weather, so are bugs that eat them, such as the green lacewing. “They’re an excellent predator,” he said.

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