Friday, August 18, 2006
Perhaps this is just a bug blog!
A banner year for bugs
Who's been having a great summer? Those creepy critters, of course
Friday, August 18, 2006
By Paul Eisenberg
But no matter their origins, they're all enjoying a good summer. In fact, bugs are having a banner year.
Next summer, when the periodic cicadas soothe their 17-year itch, those noisy critters will be garnering all the headlines. But until then, the earwigs, sow bugs, Japanese beetles and other, more typical denizens of south suburban back yards are taking center stage.
Phil Nixon, an entomologist with the University of Illinois Extension service, said the summer's wet weather has been a boon for backyard bugs, though that's not necessarily bad news for weekend warriors.
While there has been a "large emergence" of Japanese beetles this year, caused by moist soils as well as mild winters the last few years, the shiny golden pests are on the tail end of their cycle and populations should be petering out soon.
A new, destructive pest should be taking the beetles' place soon. Web worms, which encase leaves in a web-like tent structure and then feed on the enclosed leaves, are easy enough to control, he said. Just pull the web, along with the offending yellow caterpillar, off affected leaves.
Other abundant bugs this year are not quite as noticeable or destructive. They're the ones that are part of "nature's recycling crew," Nixon said, and they are appearing in vast numbers.
Among those taking advantage of the wet weather are earwigs — long brown insects with fearsome looking pincers on their tail ends. Though a bit scary, earwigs are harmless to people and mostly harmless in the garden.
Nancy Pollard, of the U of I Extension South Cook County Unit in Matteson, said that while she occasionally fields calls about earwigs eating marigolds, "they're not serious pests, unless you have a greenhouse."
In fact, they can be garden helpers, eating their share of aphids — garden enemies — when the opportunity presents itself.
Roly-polies wrongly maligned
Likewise, sow bugs, which children know as "roly-polies," are enjoying a population surge this year. Like earwigs, they feed mostly on dead and decaying organic material. But unlike most of the crawly things in the yard, sow bugs are not actually insects. Rather, they're crustaceans, related to lobsters and crayfish, and the only member of that animal family that has learned to live exclusively on land. In fact, they can drown.
Yet, holding true to their heritage, they do best in moist conditions. Conversely, they can dry out rather easily. On a particularly hot day, they can dry out and expire while trying to migrate across a blacktop driveway.
Though sow bugs can cause consternation to patio gardeners who find the gray, armored bugs living in their container plants, Nixon said the little crustaceans often are unfairly targeted when container plants die.
"What we see happening is people are over-watering their plants, causing the roots to rot," he said. "Sow bugs take advantage of that and eat the rotten roots, and then when a person pulls out their dead plant and sees the sow bugs, they get the blame."
Pollard said the bugs, which roll up into a ball at the first sign of danger, are not only fun and easy for children to catch, but they're "environmental helpers" because they free up the nutrients in dead plant material for use in the soil.
Annoying crickets serve purpose
Another member of "nature's recycling crew" is starting to make its annual emergence to the delight of children and the dismay of those who enjoy soundless nights. Crickets, black jumping insects that populate back yards and garages in late summer, have only one attribute that people view negatively, Nixon said — the chirping noise males make to attract mates.
"That bugs a lot of people who say they can't sleep because of the chirping," Nixon said. "For myself, the chirping helps put me to sleep."
But they feed exclusively on decaying organic material, he said, and if one gets into a house, it cannot live there for long or reproduce.
Crickets lay their eggs in soil and need outdoor moisture to have a successful brood.
"But they tend to hide under things in large numbers," he said, "and people can get freaked out by them."
Not all bugs with booming populations are as harmless, however. Nixon said bagworms, which live primarily on junipers, spruces and other evergreen trees and shrubs, are being reported in large numbers this summer. These caterpillars, which live nearly their whole lives in a conical cocoon they carry around with them, can severely affect their host plants. As they feed on evergreen needles, the branches they are on tend to die.
While it's nearly too late to consider a pesticide solution, they are easy enough to pick off by hand and destroy or throw away. By doing so, one not only removes the worms themselves, but thousands of potential worms because each bag carries thousands of eggs that will mature over winter.
Not all mosquitoes carry West Nile
And of course, any discussion of insects and water has to include mosquitoes. Nixon said though this year's additional rain has helped boost mosquito populations and raised annoyance levels, there hasn't been a severe problem with diseases such as West Nile because of the type of mosquito that likes wet conditions.
Flood plain mosquitoes, which hatch in great numbers after heavy rainfall, are not typically a carrier of blood diseases. The northern house mosquito, which is associated with West Nile, prefers hot, dry weather.
Even the harmless members of "nature's recycling crew" can be a nuisance, however, if sow bugs, crickets and earwigs make their way into a home. Nixon said the best way to prevent that is to remove organic mulch that is right up against exterior walls. By removing the environment that attracts the bugs to the home, the bugs won't seek ways into the home.
"And neither will the spiders that prey on them," Nixon said.