Buffalo Niagara’s winters build hardier people.
Unfortunately, they also build hardier insects.
This season’s blizzard, snow, prolonged cold and fierce wind chills could mean fewer bugs to swat, spray or squish come May or June.
But the bugs that survive will only be tougher, peskier pests.
“A lot of bugs are built to sustain cold temperatures,” said Mark Whitmore of the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University.
Some species – such as aphids and some types of grasshoppers – that are most susceptible to being killed by the extreme cold might be less plentiful as 2014 begins to warm up. But others – including the now-infamous emerald ash borer and disease-spreading ticks, as well as mosquitoes, wasps, spiders and beetles – won’t be set back as much as one might imagine after this frigid winter.
“I think we are going to see plenty of bees, ants and spiders in the spring,” predicted entomologist Marc C. Potzler at Buffalo Exterminating.
Experts say that a certain level of bug mortality can be expected from the cold, as well as from residual stress and disease from dealing with the long winter.
“Extreme cold will kill them, to an extent,” Potzler said. “Any insects that are exposed to the deep, sustained cold we’ve had? They’re toast.”
But, he quipped, insects aren’t “suicidal,” either. Most have tolerances to extreme cold, so they’ll be back.
“They are the products of evolution,” said Paul R. Fuhrmann, a natural resources restoration and invasive species specialist with Ecology & Environment in Lancaster. “Their numbers may be down or limited, but that’s a tough thing to make a broad statement about, especially as to the biting insects and the ones we don’t like.”
Preparing for months
Despite January’s harshness, the month is actually the least likely to affect wintering insects because they’ve had a few months to prepare for cold. Bugs sought out protected refuges, or even changed their blood chemistry, to avoid or tolerate the cold weather.
“Insects have their certain adaptations to prevent them from freezing,” Sharon N. Bachman, community educator for agriculture with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Erie County, said, explaining that as autumn wears on, insects are beginning to gird for winter. “Some of them form a substance in their bodies that acts as an antifreeze.”
Potzler added: “They can literally freeze solid, and in the spring, they can come back to life.”
If they stay outdoors, they head for shelter underground, in leaf piles or other secured areas where a blanket of snow can insulate them from the most bitter cold. Or they head inside for your walls, basement or attic.
“It isn’t the first cold winter we’ve had,” Potzler said. “They’re pretty well-adapted to living in Western New York.”
The emerald ash borer, a bright green beetle blamed for the widespread destruction of ash trees throughout North America over the last decade, is considered Public Enemy No. 1 among invasive pests.
That’s why when a recent report from Minnesota suggested that the emerald ash borer wasn’t a big fan of the extreme cold, some viewed the ferocity of this winter with hope.
“The Minnesota information showed at certain temperatures, a certain percentages of the bugs died,” Bachman explained.
‘There is no silver bullet’
But despite our reputation for wintry weather, Buffalo cold isn’t Minnesota cold.
“The most important thing for people to realize is there is no ‘silver bullet’ for the emerald ash borer or for any of the other forest pests,” Whitmore said.
A widely publicized study by the U.S. Forest Service and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture shows that air temperatures of minus 30 degrees and colder are required to have any significant impact, killing 98 percent of the beetle’s population. Zero degrees, according to the study, proves fatal to only about 5 percent of them.
“The cold temperatures are nice. It’s been a long time,” Whitmore explained. “But how often have we seen minus 30 Fahrenheit? Nowhere except perhaps Lake Placid do we see temperatures anywhere near this.”
Other mitigating variables, scientists explained, are that the bark under which the borer is hidden provides an insulating shelter for the bugs. Some studies have even shown borer concentrations hidden under the warmer south side of ash tree bark.
It’s possible, using the Minnesota model, that between a quarter and a third of the local emerald ash borer larval population might die from this winter’s cold, but here’s a scarier thought: Some scientists now think that could help the species on its path of destruction.
“It would lessen competition. The emerald ash borer might be healthier because of that,” Whitmore said.
One species that is taking our colder-than-normal winter hard is the hemlock woolly adelgid.
Think emerald ash borer without all the media attention.
This aphidlike creature has spent the last two decades devastating hemlock trees from the Appalachians into the Northeast, and it’s rapidly making inroads in upstate New York, including in places such as Letchworth State Park.
The adelgid, which feeds on the twigs of hemlock trees during winter, apparently hasn’t received the memo that exposure to cold kills.
Roughly 92 percent of the population was wiped out by single-digit temperatures, according to Whitmore’s sampling in early January.
Unlike many bugs, the fate of adelgids are sealed early when they select a suitable hemlock twig in anticipation of laying eggs in spring.
“Adelgids can’t move once they’re in place,” Whitmore said, meaning that they can’t escape exposure to the extreme freezing cold.
But chalk up the cold of this winter less as a solution, Whitmore said, and more as opportunity.
“It could buy us an extra year to come up with management strategies,” he said.
Employing predators across the state that feed on the adelgid’s eggs has proven effective in managing the invasive bugs. However, as with most programs of this kind, funding is limited.
Mosquitoes are ‘not stupid’
The emerald ash borer, because of its inherent economic impact and potential for liability, with dead ash trees littering the landscape, tends to draw the most attention. But Whitmore – who acknowledges that eradication of the borer is doubtful – said getting a jump on the adelgid while we still can is a solid strategy.
“I don’t want to miss opportunities,” he said.
They’re taking a winter’s rest, hidden in the warmer areas of your garages, attics and closets, but rest assured that mosquitoes will be back in 2014, the same way they’ve skittered about, biting things for 170 million years.
“They just shut everything down and just hang out in humid and warm places,” said Joseph M. Conlon, technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association, adding that the mosquito remains inactive until the temperature reaches about 55 degrees. The mosquito, like many insects, undergoes a wintering period called “diapause” by suspending activity to manage metabolism and preserve energy.
Conlon said some varieties of mosquitoes – such as the disease-carrying Asian tiger mosquito – might be deterred from making an appearance here this year by the winter cold, but others such as the northern house mosquito or peturban varieties, are firmly entrenched in our environment.
The Asian tiger mosquito, a known carrier of West Nile fever and other viruses, doesn’t cross into areas where the mean January temperature is less than about 23 degrees, according to scientific studies.
On the other hand, other mosquito populations are, like the rest of us, hunkered down waiting for spring.
Besides the common northern house mosquito, the peturban variety, which breed in ponds, can actually attach themselves to underwater plants such as cattails and suck oxygen from the plant to survive.
He said the science doesn’t point to extreme cold weather curtailing mosquitoes later in the year.
“It may happen, but I wouldn’t predict it,” Conlon said, adding that snowmelt and a wet spring might actually enhance their numbers.
“It’s really predicated on the availability of water.”
One of North America’s worst areas for mosquitoes is a pretty cold area in its own right – the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. There, spring snow melt brings mosquitoes out “in staggering numbers,” Conlon said.
There are so many that caribou have been found asphyxiated by the swarms. “They’re not stupid,” Conlon said of mosquitoes. “They’re really marvels of nature.”
Insights from ‘the tick guy’
Cases of Lyme disease or other tick-borne illnesses could drop in 2014, but that won’t be known until mid-summer, according to Thomas N. Mather, tick expert and professor at the University of Rhode Island.
And even if it does happen, the harsh winter probably won’t have much to do with it.
“There may be some ancillary knockdown, but I think there are other things that affect their populations more,” said Mather, known at URI as “the tick guy” and popularized by his online video experiments on ticks.
Humidity – most notably when it falls below 82 percent for eight or more hours in the ticks’ environment – proves most lethal to them.
Mather’s latest video, titled Polar “Vorticks,” depicts the professor burying a vial of deer ticks under the snow for 24 hours in 3-degree temperatures in a experiment designed to answer the age-old question: “Are Freezing Temps Killing Ticks?”
“Are they alive?” asks Mather, opening the vial. “They are. They are alive. Looks like we’re going to have more tick encounters this spring than maybe we thought we would have.”
What isn’t shown on the video are another group of ticks Mather put in his own freezer where the temperature was minus 2.
Wake-up call for bugs
The most likely explanation, according to Mather, is that deer ticks – like the earlier mentioned spiders, bees, mosquitoes and other insects – seem to know to hide from the cold to survive. Most times they’ll be found at ground level under the snow, or in piles of leaves and brush, which provides insulation from the extreme cold.
“No self-respecting deer tick is going to be 2 feet up on vegetation during the cold weather,” Mather said. “We do see populations going up and down a little bit, but there are so many other factors that are more important that an abnormally cold winter.”
Every bug’s alarm clock is different.
For ticks, a night above freezing and a daytime high in the 30s and 40s make them tick again. Forty-degree weather makes a lot of other bugs wake up. For mosquitoes, 55 degrees does it.
So if the bugs bug you, enjoy it now.
Although at some points in January it probably felt like a never-ending winter, it’s not going to stay this cold forever. When the chill of winter lifts, so will the activity of bugs. As February turns into March and the sun arches higher into the sky, it will begin to warm things up again.
Watch for bugs first near a south wall.
“That wall warms up and the bugs come back to life,” Potzler explained. “Then the bugs go toward the heat, so they head back into the house.”