Insect surge could be sign of changing climate

Jun 17, 2021

Maybe you’ve noticed an unusually large number of ticks on your dog. Or maybe you got an itchy rash that seemed to come out of nowhere.

Perhaps you were one of the people whose feet turned black after a walk on Wells Beach last week.

What’s happening? As Maine inches toward the start of summer, nature seems to be in revolt, and insects are leading the charge.

From the explosion of ticks, to the proliferation of brown-tail moths and the mass die-off of a still-unidentified aphid-like creature in Wells that left a black smear on the sand that’s hard to wash off, we are experiencing the results of weird weather patterns that show how our climate is changing.

People are reporting an unusual level of pests this year on top of the usual swarms of mosquitos and blackflies that are long-accepted partners to warmer weather. Some of these new bugs are just annoying, while others can result in serious health risks.

The tick surge started to appear last month, likely survivors of a warm winter that didn’t have enough cold snaps to keep the population down. So far, it appears the increase is confined to dog ticks, which are not as dangerous as the smaller deer tick that carries Lyme disease, but they are still parasites that should be avoided.

The same strategies work for all kinds of ticks: Use insect repellent, wear long pants and tuck them into your socks when you walk through tall grass or wooded areas.

On top of the ticks, this could be the worst year ever for the brown-tail moth in Maine.

An invasive species, brown-tail moth caterpillars emerge from their winter webs and shed tiny hairs, which are blown by the wind and are toxic to human skin.

Most commonly, they cause a poison ivy-like rash. In some cases, people can inhale hairs and develop breathing problems.

Hot, dry weather, like the kind we saw in Maine last summer, is a boon for these and other nuisance caterpillars, which are spreading westward from the Maine coast. Another hot summer combined with drought could make this spring the new normal.

The brown-tail moth season peaks in June and July. The state Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear a mask and goggles if they are raking or stirring up yard debris, and take a cool shower after being outside in areas where the moths are active.

Anyone having trouble breathing, swallowing or feeling swelling in the mouth, tongue or throat should call 911.

What happened in Wells is still under investigation.

It could be that the extreme heatwave that hit at the start of the month sent the wrong signal to the flying insects, which died when the temperature dropped back to seasonal levels.

As far as we know, they are just an annoying memory, but they send an important message:

The world around us is changing, and we need to pay attention.

Reprinted from The Portland Press Herald.

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