Reflections on the insects of 2003

So many bugs-so little time. Or so it seems after my first nine months of answering insect questions for the citizens of Iowa.

For me summer officially began in March when warm weather caused those Asian lady beetles and boxelder bugs to began moving about in our homes. I spent most of my time apologizing for not having an answer. After all they got into our houses last fall, and there is really not much to keep them out. I began to fantasize about inventing a device to keep them out, making millions of dollars, and retiring early. Telephone calls about carpenter ants began in April. As I scan over my records, I am certain that carpenter ants are by far the most common concern. I think this is because they are an ant species that forages widely, is large and obvious, and people are scared they are eating their homes. I try to reassure them that even if the colony is indoors, their presence is secondary to the water damaged wood where they are nesting. Money is probably better spent in replacing the wood rather than treating the ants.

About mid-April the clover mites began their annual migration to parts unknown (although I can't imagine they go far) and caused problems for homeowners with their purple stains. Best just to suck them up quick with the vacuum and wait a week until they stop their movement.

In early May the first ticks started appearing, especially the lone star tick. This is a species that has been moving into Iowa from the south for several years. Lone star ticks are not considered a health threat in Iowa because they do not transmit Lyme disease. In other parts of the country (Carolinas and Ozark region) lone star tick is a major carrier of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but spotted fever is rare in Iowa. However, many people are still having their first encounter with this tick by finding them attached to their bodies drinking their blood, and are understandably concerned.

June was when the calls about mosquitoes started. We had a great spring for them, cool and wet. A walk in the woods required a bath in DEET, a wonderful chemical for keeping the mosquitoes at bay, but a concern for parents and the heath risks to children. The question seemed to be what is worse, the remote chance of being infected with West Nile Virus and having a bad reaction to it, or exposing our children to DEET. No good answers for this one. Just remember to use products with less than 10 percent DEET on children and follow the instructions on the label. As for mosquito control, I just reminded people that there are probably more mosquitoes being produced in their birdbaths than an entire lake. Small pools of water with no predators are the best breeding grounds for the aquatic larval stages of mosquitoes.

July was the cicada killer month. Nothing like enormous wasps digging holes in the garden and yard to worry people. Luckily they are non-aggressive and I have never heard of anyone being stung-except the occasional entomologist-we tend to get too involved in handling insects. The female paralyzes the cicada, drags it back to her burrow, and places it in a cell with an egg. The larval cicada killers hatch and consume the paralyzed cicadas provided by mom. The insect world always puts a whole new spin on parental care.

August seems to have been dominated by grasshoppers. As the crop fields begin to dry they make a beeline (or grasshopperline?) for our gardens. They also have been reported eating holes in those new black fiberglass or plastic window screens. Grasshoppers tend to function pretty simply - land on something, try to eat it. The only long-term remedy is to replace fiberglass screens with aluminum screens; grasshopper jaws are no match for metal.

And now the lady beetles and boxelder bugs are back in force this year. Sealing cracks and holes with caulk, replacing weather stripping, and covering vents with screens are the best methods to keep them out, but these do not seem to be the quick fix we all want. I will have to get to work on my magic repellent device; hopefully I will be in Cancun by January!

This article originally appeared in the 10/10/2003 issue.

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