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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Pests get warm welcome

Mild winter, early spring weather have exterminators working to ward off a potential bug boom

Chris Russell of Advanced Pest Control sprayed a house in Coeur d’Alene last month. They have seen an increased number of calls due to the early onset of warm weather. (Kathy Plonka)
Chris Russell of Advanced Pest Control sprayed a house in Coeur d’Alene last month. They have seen an increased number of calls due to the early onset of warm weather. (Kathy Plonka)
Jacob Livingston

The mild winter weather offered people ample time to spend outdoors. Now it also means there could be more uninvited houseguests crawling around in springtime.

The insects of spring have shaken off the cold and crawled out of their hiding spots weeks in advance, aided by a winter that saw less than 14 inches of snowfall in the region and above-normal temperatures during most of the colder months – especially in early 2010. Homeowners and residents across the Inland Northwest might notice more bugs compared to previous years, with indoor critters emerging from cellars, vents and attics, and outside bugs prowling the yard.

Local pest control companies have been called to action, with many reporting an increase in phone calls this year over previous thawing seasons.

“Pretty much when the weather starts heating up, the insects start showing up,” said Chris Russell, a technician at Advanced Pest Control in Coeur d’Alene. “We’re thinking it could be a busy season; we’ve already had quite a few calls for spiders and ants. We’ve started spraying about a month earlier.”

Pat Johnson, owner and co-founder of the company, said based on her more than four decades in the business, without the extreme cold that otherwise kills off a host of indoor and outdoor pests, “we might be experiencing a busy season.”

Across the Inland Northwest, aphids are on the march in gardens. Spider mites are raiding greens. Inside, ants and house spiders have reclaimed dark corners, nooks and crannies.

While some of the nastier species have yet to show up, such as the aggressive house spider, or hobo spider, yellow jackets and carpenter ants, pest control employees are seeing other pests sooner than usual. To ward off an outbreak of plant- and tree-destroying pests, companies such as Northwest Plant Health Care, which specializes in pruning and fertilizing trees, shrubs and other plants, began treating yards roughly a month ahead of schedule. The targets so far include aphids, hornworms, spider mites and some beetles.

“We’re trying to go into this with a very open mind and expect anything,” said Becky Philips, an arborist with the company, adding that many springtime insect species will show up when mid 60-degree temperatures are sustained for a few days. “Nobody knows what to expect,” she said.

Kim Knerl, owner of Public Health Pest Control, said an outbreak of wasps and hornets could be in store for North Idaho at the height of summer. “If you have a mild winter, there are probably going to be more queens to start more nests this year,” he offered.

Beyond hornet and bee numbers, Knerl warned of another potential worry for the summer months: a warmer-than-usual winter might harbor larger mosquito populations, especially if it’s followed by a wet-weather spring, and could result in more cases of West Nile virus this year. The disease first appeared in the state in Southern Idaho in 2006 and spread rapidly in the following years, but North Idaho has been spared so far.

Of the estimated 10 million species of insects across the planet – of which only about 800,000 have been named and categorized – roughly 25,000 call North Idaho home, according to James Johnson, an entomologist and head of the University of Idaho Plant, Soil and Entomological Sciences department. A mild winter will definitely help some of those bugs thrive, he said, adding there is a link between the early arrival of spring and the emergence of some species.

“The mild winter will help some of them survive over the winter, but not all,” he said.

Even with an onslaught of insects, it’s important to keep in mind that some predatory insects are beneficial to have around. With an appetite for the more destructive bugs that can chew plants to ruin, such as the ladybug’s penchant for aphids and spider mites. Some common house spiders feed on ants and some of the predatory pests might not be pests at all, UI’s Johnson offered.

“The only spiders that you need to worry about are the ones that can injure people, such as the aggressive house spiders around here,” he said.

Regardless of whether they’re seen or felt, insects are our unseen neighbors and constant houseguests, according to Johnson, so it’s a good idea to become familiar with their positive and negative aspects. Some, he added, are going to be more welcome than others.

“Insects are the most diverse group of multicellular species out there. You never run out of new things to study and adventures there. … I like to say they have us outnumbered and surrounded.”

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