Some like it hot; Mild winter leads to insect infestations

Posted: Thursday, July 24, 2003

Bugs like it hot ... well, mild at least.

Thanks to the unusually mild weather during Alaska's most recent winter, bugs are plentiful this summer.

"The mild winter was very beneficial to a lot of insect populations," said Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna.

While this is a good thing in terms of pollinators that are a gardener's best friend, beetles that aid in the decomposition of dead things on the forest floor and spiders that eat other bugs that are harmful to plants, it's not so good in terms of destructive insects.

"In June, I received dozens of calls from folks in the Sterling area about small, black fuzzy caterpillars that were just covering everything," Chumley said.

"There were literally hundreds of thousands on homes, shrubs, everything."

Chumley went to investigate and took some samples in hopes of identifying the infestation. The task was no simple one as caterpillars are only the larval stage of something else, and as such, are not readily identifiable.

"I took samples and sent them to the specialists," she said.

The apparent answer came from Washington State University Puyallup: "I'm fairly certain they are bertha armyworms," wrote entomologist Art Antonelli.

Not native to Alaska, the armyworms probably were brought in on feed products. The insect is common in western Canada, according to Chumley.

The large concentrations reported to the Soldotna extension office were along the Kenai River corridor in Funny River and Sterling, and the critters were feeding on Bebbs willow.

"Now they are pupating and by next month we will see a lot of small, nondescript moths, which will lay eggs and start the cycle all over again," Chumley said. A hard winter will kill out a lot of the insects, she added.

The adult bertha armyworm is a greenish-gray moth with two spots on the front wings, a small round spot with a large kidney-shaped white or gray spot on the middle of the wing and a whitish band near the edge of the wing.

As larvae, they feed on plant foliage.

In addition to the armyworms, the mild winter also has been beneficial to birch leaf miners and birch aphids, which have wreaked havoc on birch trees in Southcentral Alaska in recent years.

Chumley said that long periods of dry summer weather lead to moisture-stressed trees, which become prone to insect infestation.

"Birch trees in the area are already showing signs of stress," she said.

For more information about insects found near area homes, call the Cooperative Extension Service at 262-5824 or visit the office on Kalifornsky Beach Road near the Department of Fish and Game office in Soldotna.

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