Weather & Natural Disasters

Rain is a good thing, but here come the insects


The recent deluge that has hit several Southern states have brought a reprieve from years of drought, and are a blessing for many farmers.

But it also might pack its own curse: the wet conditions are a boon to certain invasive insect species that could threaten crops, and scientists are warning it could be a buggy summer across newly wet regions.

Cotton boll weevil
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Right now, fields are soaked, and the weather is still relatively cool. But as the weather starts to warm, the bugs will come out, and farmers in the region will see a "superabundance" of insect pests that could carry over into 2016, said Micky Eubanks, an entomologist at Texas A&M University.

The rain has been a blessing to farmers in the region, who have struggled to keep their crops and livestock watered during a multiyear drought. But the newly verdant land will be "heaven" for insect species, Eubanks said. (Tweet This)

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"This is the greenest I have ever seen the state of Texas," Eubanks said. "The fields are green, and all of the wildflowers and herbaceous plants are just going crazy."

Insects are already gorging themselves on those wild plants and will likely move over to domestic crops by the end of the summer, Eubanks said. Many of the species can feed on several types of plants, so all crops stand to be affected.

That includes crops such as cotton, wheat, sorghum, canola and alfalfa, and others grown across the region.

It could be such a bountiful year for insects that their high numbers carry over into 2016, Eubanks said.

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That normally would not be much of an issue for people in pest management, but this is not a normal year. And entomologists in the Lone Star State are waiting to gauge the effect of one new factor: a bevy of insect species whose populations have been rebounding over the last several years.

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Texas is the largest producer of cotton in the United States, and agricultural entomologists there and in other cotton-growing states have fought a long battle against the cotton boll weevil. The United States Department of Agriculture launched a program to eradicate the boll weevil in the 1970s and was eventually successful in most cotton states, including Texas. The National Cotton Council refers to boll weevil eradication as perhaps the greatest advancement for the American cotton industry since Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.

An unfortunate side effect of that program was that many other insect species were decimated by the insecticides used to kill off boll weevils

The success of the program for growers, combined with the increasing use of transgenic crops—plants that have had DNA from other organisms added—has allowed farmers to reduce their pesticide use. Those other insect populations destroyed as collateral damage during the boll weevil program have since reappeared.

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"It is an unfortunate effect of a successful outcome," said Greg Sword, another entomologist at Texas A&M.

Insect scientists at New Mexico State University, similarly warned this week that insect invasions in New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest are likely this year and could threaten New Mexico's alfalfa and chile crops.

The biggest challenge that pest managers are facing now is just getting into the field. Much of the farm land across the region is either flooded or prohibitively muddy, making it impossible to get close and treat crops, or even assess insect populations during the prime growing season.

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"The first impact is that it really restricts what a producer can do when he does have a problem," said Tom Royer, a field entomologist at Oklahoma State University. "It's kind of odd, but a couple of pests we have had in wheat and canola have all been sticking to the edges of the fields. If you can get out there, you can spot-spray those places, but you can't do that in an airplane."

There are already some pests, such as a small but highly invasive insect species called thrips that is already out in fields attacking plants, Sword said.

Farmers and pest managers are just waiting to see what the summer brings.

"I am a field crop entomologist, so I can't tell you much about mosquitoes, but I am bracing for them this year," Royer said.