A wamer winter means spring buzzes with bugs in KC

The winter that barely was is now the spring of strange.

Warm temperatures will mean more of some bugs, less of others.

Plants are leafing a month or more ahead of schedule. Flowers and pollinators may be out of sync.

The monarchs are early, and the mosquitoes will have time to get in an extra generation or two.

Experts don’t know exactly how all of this will shake out, only that things are weird.

“Right now, a whole lot of things are out of whack,” said Orley “Chip” Taylor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas. “There hasn’t been a March like this since records were kept in the 1880s, so we’re dealing with an unprecedented set of conditions here,” Taylor said. “We can’t really project forward because we don’t have the experience.”

Insects don’t have an internal heat source like mammals do, so they are profoundly affected by external temperatures. Many species that normally experience a large die-off during winter survived this one. But others that benefit from a protective snow cover, like bumblebees, may not have fared so well. There are always trade-offs in nature, and experts say consequences are not immediately clear.

“It gets to be pretty complex, there are so many factors at play,” said Rob Lawrence, forest entomologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Insects that produce more than one generation a season got an early start this year and have more time to procreate.

“We will have an explosive season for mosquitoes,” predicted Caroline Chaboo, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU. “There will be many more chiggers and mites for people who are hiking outdoors.”

It could also mean more aphids in backyard vegetable gardens. There will probably be more ticks and flies than usual this spring and summer. But an abundance of spiders could keep some insect populations in check.

Lawrence said he is seeing higher-than-normal numbers of tent caterpillars — the ones that form silky masses in the forks of fruit trees — but they are relatively harmless. They overwinter exposed to the elements as eggs attached to branches, so more of them survived this past winter.

At Powell Gardens, 26 different species of butterfly had been sighted as of April 1, as opposed to maybe 10 species in a normal year, said Alan Branhagen, director of horticulture.

He also noticed grasshopper nymphs all winter long, a phenomenon he termed bizarre.

An increase in foilage-eating insects could have a damaging effect on trees budding earlier than usual — and before the Baltimore orioles, eastern kingbirds and great crested flycatchers pass through.

“Normally, there are tons of migrating birds to eat all those bugs up,” Branhagen said.

He is also keeping an eye on another creature that he would just as soon not have migrating north: fire ants. They are an invasive species that can live in lawns and sting like crazy. Cold is the limiting factor in their progress, so the mild winter may have thrown out a welcome mat.

“They’re in Oklahoma and Arkansas, which is getting dangerously close,” Branhagen said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if they show up in southern Missouri and Kansas soon.”

Other itinerant creatures are more welcome.

There were nine reported sightings of monarch butterflies in Kansas last month — three weeks ahead of schedule. Taylor, who is also director of the Monarch Watch program, said there has never been a March sighting in Kansas before. They are also being sighted well ahead of schedule in Missouri.

Just about all the peculiarities of this season can be linked to the unusually warm winter.

“It wasn’t a winter,” corrected Taylor, “it was just one long November.”

A hard April freeze, like the one we had in 2007, could put a halt to all of this. But that could be disastrous for gardens and crops and is increasingly unlikely.

Still, the rest of April looks to be a mix of above and below “normal” temperatures.

“That’s really a good thing for all of us who are carefully watching things happen in the garden,” Taylor said. “We need things to slow down.”