Tag Archives: In the News

Weathering the Emerald Storm: EAB in Wisconsin

Like a kid watching a summer thunderstorm slowly rolling in and wondering how long until the rumbles would be directly overhead, I’ve had a morbid fascination with watching the progression of the emerald ash borer in the Midwest for over a decade.  Although emerald ash borer wasn’t found in Wisconsin until 2008, my connection with EAB precedes that by a few years.  It turns out my first job as a budding entomologist was as a summer intern for UW-Extension looking for signs of the insect in the state during the summers of 2005 and 2006.  Fast forward twelve years and that storm is finally overhead, at least in my neck of the woods.  I knew such a time would come, but it really hits close to home when the sounds of chainsaws mark the final days of your neighborhood’s ash trees—at least the ones that aren’t being treated. 

EAB Detection and Quarantines as of May 19, 2017. Click for larger version. Image source: WI-DATCP.

At the time of writing, 42 counties in Wisconsin have been quarantined for EAB.  While the southeastern part of the state has already been hit hard (green on the map above), a large chunk of the state has not yet seen the emerald ash borer or has only seen light pressure (click the map above to see more details on this topic). Unfortunately, this means that the emerald storm will only be getting worse over the coming years.  Along these lines, when EAB first arrived in Wisconsin, spread was slow and the annual number of new community-level detections was small.  However, as the populations of this insect have built up in the state, the number of new detections has increased dramatically as illustrated below:

Chart created using data from WI-DATCP on May 22, 2017. Click for a larger version.

Unfortunately, the outlook for the Midwest’s ash trees doesn’t look good and we’ll still be dealing with this insect for years to come.  Ironically, this isn’t the first time that we’ve watched a scenario like this play out.  As the baby boomer generation grew up, they watched as elms were devastated by the likes of Dutch elm disease.  As with emerald ash borer, Dutch elm disease had significant impacts on forested and urban areas and led to irreversible changes in the landscape around us.

With all this Doom-and-Gloom, is there a light at the end of the tunnel?
Possibly—but it may be a ways off.  For the time being, there are insecticide treatments available that can maintain the health of ash trees, although treatments are costly and are only feasible for relatively small numbers of trees.  Biological control is being explored as a potential way to control EAB populations, although results have been limited thus far.  However, with any biological control program, it can take years to work the kinks out of the system and see results.

A long-term plan may be to develop varieties of ash trees that are resistant to attack by the emerald ash borer.  In several locations in Ohio and Michigan, scientists have found a small percentage of “lingering” ash trees that have survived the initial onslaught of EAB and are monitoring those trees over time for continued survival and genetic traits that may help stave off infestations.  Interestingly, one particular species of ash (blue ash, Fraxinus quadrangulata) may hold important clues for long-term ash survival.  In some spots in Michigan, >60% of blue ash trees have survived in areas attacked by emerald ash borer.  While tree breeding programs may ultimately develop a resistant ash variety, this is likely years away and for the time being we’ll have to face the emerald storm.

Larval tunnels of the emerald ash borer beneath the bark of an ash tree. This damage disrupts the flow of water and nutrients and ultimately kills the tree. Image source: PJ Liesch, UW Entomology.

Don’t Be an (April) Fool: Look Out For Ticks

April Fools’ Day may be here, but the topic of ticks is anything but funny.  The Midwest is home to over a dozen tick species, although only a few of these are encountered regularly by people and/or pets and are of notable concern.  Nevertheless, the medical concerns posed by some species can be quite significant.  Our two most notorious species of ticks in Wisconsin and nearby states are the wood tick (aka American Dog tick) and the deer tick (aka black-legged tick).

The wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis) is perhaps our most commonly encountered tick and adults of this species are fairly noticeable with their relatively large size (~ 1/4  inch long).  Wood ticks can be associated with certain human diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever although the threat of this disease in the Midwest is low.  A complication regularly caused by this tick in the field of veterinary medicine is tick paralysis, which is a serious reaction to components of the tick’s saliva in situations where ticks have been attached to pets for extended periods of time.

Adult Female Wood Tick (American Dog Tick). Image source: CDC.

At the moment, the tick of greatest concern in the Midwest is the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis).  This is the species notoriously associated with Lyme disease, although it can also vector anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and other diseases.  This tick is noticeably smaller than wood ticks, making them more difficult to spot; adult deer ticks come in at a mere ~ 1/8 inch long.  Interestingly, deer ticks are relatively new to the upper Midwest and these ticks weren’t spotted in Wisconsin until the late 1960’s .  Fast forward 50 years and deer ticks can be found in nearly every corner of the state.  The high rate of infectivity (i.e., percentage of ticks carrying a disease) is worryingly high: approximately 20% of tick nymphs (juveniles) and 40% of adult ticks in Wisconsin are carrying the microorganism responsible for Lyme disease.  In certain spots in the state, the rate of infectivity has been documented at closer to 60% in some studies.  This high rate of infectivity combined with the recent ubiquity of deer ticks poses significant health risks to residents of the upper Midwest and nearly 30,000 confirmed Lyme disease cases are reported from across the country to the CDC each year.  What’s more alarming is that estimates from the CDC suggest that the actual number of Lyme disease cases may be an order of magnitude higher!

Adult Female Deer Tick (Blacklegged Tick). Image source: CDC.

So how will ticks and Lyme disease be in Wisconsin this year? Some scientists have predicted high tick and Lyme disease pressure in the eastern US in 2017.  While that topic has gotten a lot of attention in the news, this may not be the case in our state.  The thought behind the prediction is that high rodent populations (a host for juvenile deer ticks) may bolster deer tick numbers.  While this relationship was documented in certain geographic locations in a 2005 study, the relationship didn’t hold up across the board as a general predictor of tick activity and neither did weather patterns.  With that said, it’s difficult to get a reliable predictor of tick activity and Lyme disease pressure in a given year.  In addition, based on recent field observations by fellow entomologists, rodent populations don’t seem to be bursting at the seams at the moment in Wisconsin. Last year (2016) seemed to be an average tick year in the state and we may be in for more of the same this year.

Regardless of tick numbers, the threat of ticks and Lyme disease is still out there and isn’t something to be ignored.  Deer ticks can potentially be encountered anytime of the year that the temperatures are above freezing and the ground isn’t covered with snow.  While often thought of as a creature of the deep woods, ticks can also be found in suburban areas near parks and nature preserves, so vigilance is a must—even in your own backyard.  Below are some sound tips to help prevent issues with ticks this year:

  • Personal Protection: Long sleeved clothes can help prevent ticks from getting to skin. In addition, light-colored clothing can make it easier to spot ticks.
  • Repellents: A number of EPA approved repellents (such as DEET) can help repel ticks when properly used. Always consult the product label for important usage instructions (e.g., application to skin vs clothing, how often to reapply).  As another consideration, clothing can be treated with certain permethrin products (often sold at outdoor/camping stores) to provide long-term protection from ticks. Outdoor clothing impregnated with permethrin can also be purchased at outdoor clothing stores and can remain effective for extended periods of time.
  • Tick checks: To effectively transmit Lyme disease, deer ticks have to be attached and feeding for approximately 36 – 48 hours which means that daily tick checks can help find and remove ticks before they’ve had a chance to transmit Lyme disease. Tick checks can be an important precaution for both people and pets.
  • Protecting Pets: Family pets should be treated with a preventative flea and tick treatment. Consult with your veterinarian about the products recommended for your particular pet(s).  Lyme vaccines for animals are also available through your veterinarian.

Perhaps Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor with her April Fools’ pranks—we finally have an end to the dreary days of winter only to move into tick season!

Is This a Kissing Bug?

Kissing” and “bugs”—two words you wouldn’t expect to be put together in the same sentence have been strung together rather frequently in the news lately.  No, this isn’t some poorly understood internet phenomenon amongst the youth of the country.  Rather, when you hear about “kissing bugs”, we’re really talking about a group of blood-feeding assassin bugs (Family Reduviidae, Triatoma species).

So what’s the story behind these insects and why the hype?
Kissing bugs are similar to bed bugs as they both feed on the blood of vertebrate hosts.  However, unlike bed bugs which have anthropophilic habits, kissing bugs are typically associated with animal nests in wooded areas.  Kissing bugs don’t go out of their way to sneak indoors, although if they do happen to wander in they can be attracted to the heat and carbon dioxide of a sleeping human.  When human bites do occur, it can often be on the exposed, softer skin of the face, hence the nickname of “kissing bugs”.  The biggest concern with kissing bugs is that under the right conditions they can serve as a vector of American trypanosomiasis (aka Chagas Disease), a serious disease that can lurk in the body and ultimately affect the heart and other organs.

What does the kissing bug story have to do with Wisconsin and the Great Lakes region?
In brief: not a whole lot.  While there are nearly a dozen species of kissing bugs in the western hemisphere, these insects are primarily found in rural Central and South America.  I recently spent some time amongst the Wisconsin Insect Research Collection’s  8 million+ specimens, and found no verified cases of kissing bugs in Wisconsin.  Technically, these insects have been found in some of the southern states, although they tend to be quite rare in the US and there isn’t any evidence to suggest that they’re expanding their range or increasing their numbers.  Unless you’ll be spending an extended amount of time in Central or South America, the threat posed by kissing bugs and Chagas disease is basically non-existent.  Overall, the hype about kissing bugs is more bark than. . .bite.

Think you’ve found a kissing bug in Wisconsin (or elsewhere)?
There are a few look-alikes that could potentially be confused with kissing bugs.  Boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittata) share the red and blackish coloration of certain kissing bugs, while the masked hunter assassin bug (Reduvius personatus) shares a similar body size and shape.  However, due to the slender body and similar “checkerboard-like” pattern around the abdomen , the insect getting confused the most with kissing bugs at the moment seems to be the western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), which can be very common in Wisconsin and in many parts of the country.

Why the western conifer seed bug?  As described in an earlier post, western conifer seed bugs frequently try to sneak indoors in the fall to seek out a sheltered spot to spend the winter.  As a result, encounters with these harmless insects occur on a regular basis.  Want some peace of mind that the insect you’ve seen is a western conifer seed bug and not a kissing bug?  Check out this handy side-by-side guide comparing the eastern conenose kissing bug (Triatoma sanguisuga) with the western conifer seed bug:

Is this a kissing bug?
Distinguishing features of the Eastern Conenose Kissing Bug and Western Conifer Seed Bug; click for larger version. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology

Further reading:
Gwen Pearson recently covered the Kissing Bug story for Wired and included some excellent references.

Why Such a Stink About a Bug?

Every fall, residents throughout Wisconsin and many other parts of the country face an invasion by a number of insects: boxelder bugs, multicolored Asian lady beetles, western conifer seed bugs and cluster flies, to name a few.  With the coming frosts, these insects are simply trying to find a sheltered location to settle for the winter.  Out in nature, many of these insects would simply crawl into a rock pile or beneath the loose bark of a dead tree to overwinter.

MALB Overwintering_opt
Multicolored Asian Lady Beetles often spend the winter in sheltered spots, such as beneath the bark of dead trees. However, they can just as easily sneak into buildings. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology

But why rough it out in nature if there are perfectly good buildings to sneak in to?  Next time you’re cleaning the gutters, take a moment to peek around the outside of your house.  Small gaps in siding, soffit areas, around door and window frames, and cracks in the foundation are all potential spots for insects to sneak through.  And if they make it through?  Well, you could be in for some extended visitors. . .

In addition to the usual fall invaders, a relative newcomer starting to pop up in Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest is the invasive Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Halyomorpha halys).  Like the boxelder bugs and multicolored Asian lady beetles, brown marmorated stink bugs (BMSB) like to find their way indoors for the winter.  This Asian species was first detected in Wisconsin back in 2010 and for reasons we don’t fully understand, their numbers have been quite low the past few years.  As of late 2014, BMSB has been confirmed or suspected in 10 Wisconsin counties, with most of the reports coming out of the Madison and Milwaukee area.  A handful of sightings each year has been the pattern.

Unfortunately, we may be at the beginning of a shift in BMSB populations in the state.  In early 2015, there were at least 6 specimens found in Wisconsin by early March.  Despite the quiet summer, the sightings have started popping up again in late September and October of this year.  What’s more concerning is that we’re starting to see groups of these insects clustered together (previous sightings had consisted almost exclusively of lone individuals).

Not only are these unwanted houseguests a nuisance, but quite frankly, they smell bad.  True to their title of “stink bug”, brown marmorated stink bugs possess glands that can emit a pungent odor.  Some consider the odor to be coriander-like, while others  say it resembles musty gym socks.  Invasive species [check].  Nuisance invader [check].  Smells bad [check].  That’s all, right?  Unfortunately, not quite.  Just like a bad late-night infomercial: Wait! There’s more!

Bad Bug Checklist-Upload

It turns out that brown marmorated stink bug has the potential to be quite a nasty plant pest and rivals the Japanese beetle in the breadth of its palate.  Brown marmorated stink bug seems to feed on just about anything under the sun: field crops like corn and soybeans, vegetables like tomatoes and peppers, and even ornamental trees and shrubsFruits like apples and grapes can be hit especially hard.  In some cases, the mere presence of BMSB can be a problem: imagine being a vintner and having your batch of wine tainted by the presence of a few squished stink bugs!  In the eastern U.S. there are regular reports of agricultural problems and growers have to spray to control these insects.  We haven’t had any reports of plant damage in Wisconsin yet, but that could change over time if BMSB populations continue to climb.

So what can you do about brown marmorated stink bugs?  For starters, learning to tell them apart from our native stink bugs is relatively easy.  Look for the alternating “checkerboard” pattern along the back edge of these half-inch long insects and the two light bands on the otherwise brown antennae.

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug ID
Identifying features of the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug; click for larger version. Photo Credit: PJ Liesch, UW-Entomology

With relatively few sightings in Wisconsin at this point, we’re still trying to get a feel for where this insect is.  If you suspect that there may be brown marmorated stink bugs around your house, take a picture of the insect and email it to me at (pliesch@wisc.edu) for identification.  Another option is to collect a physical sample and mail them in to the Insect Diagnostic Lab for identification (instructions on how to submit samples can be found here).

If brown marmorated stink bugs or other fall invading insects are trying to get into your house, one of the best things to do is to inspect the outside of your home and physically seal up cracks and crevices where they’re trying to sneak in.  Once fall invaders are indoors, hauling out the hose attachment on the vacuum cleaner is often one of the best steps to remove them.

 

The Plight of the Monarchs

Just like the bees, the beloved Monarch (Danaus plexippus), is facing declines in North America.  Unlike the bee declines, which seem to be the result of a complex amalgam of factors, a major factor jumps out when it comes to monarch declines: habitat loss.  Simply put, we’ve gotten rid of much of the formerly ubiquitous milkweed in the Midwest.  There’s a number of reasons for this, ranging from continued land development, farm subsidies that have resulted in the cultivation of non-crop land, and heavy use of herbicide resistant crop varieties.  One scientific report suggests that the Midwest has lost nearly 60% of its milkweed over the past fifteen years.

Reared adult monarch prior to release, August 2008; Photo credit: PJ Liesch

We all probably learned the general story of the monarch in elementary school: a spring northward migration, milkweed, eggs, more milkweed, striped caterpillars, even more milkweed, orange and black butterflies, and finally migration down to Mexico after a few generations (there’s a great migration video here).  It’s bad enough that the sole summer food source of the monarchs (milkweed) has been disappearing, but monarchs are actually fighting a multi-front battle, as their overwintering habitat is disappearing as well.  Over the past few decades, much of the overwintering territory in Mexico has been lost, degraded, and fragmented by logging (both large and small scale).  What’s really concerning is that the overwintering territory isn’t all that big to begin with, making the insects vulnerable to extreme weather events.  A brutal winter storm in January of 2002 killed roughly 75% of the monarchs at some overwintering sites.  If monarchs keep getting squished into smaller and smaller areas, all it could take is a few bad winter storms to crash their numbers. Talk about putting all your eggs into one basket. . .

So why the fuss about monarchs now?
Over the past two years, the number of monarchs overwintering in Mexico has been the lowest in the history of the annual surveys.

Monarch Population Chart

With enough support, could we also pull the iconic monarch out of harms way?  Having the assistance of the President of the United States certainly helps.  Just yesterday, the white house announced that the Pollinator Task Force (created in 2014) has released its plan to help pollinators.  The three main goals of the plan are: 1) reduce honey bee losses to sustainable levels, 2) preserve the monarch population in the US, and 3) increase and improve pollinator habitat (full details here).

This isn’t the first time we’ve recognized a species at risk and created a recovery plan.  A classic success story: the iconic bald eagle.  It’s estimated that in the mid 1900’s there were just over 400 pairs of bald eagles left in the contiguous US.  These days, anyone passing through Sauk City, can tell you bald eagles have certainly rebounded.

While the Pollinator Task Force’s plan will take some time, there are things we can all do to immediately provide assistance for monarchs:
1) Plant milkweed to create a habitat for monarchs
2) Get involved with citizen science projects to educate ourselves and others
3) Use caution when using pesticides in the landscape to minimize impacts to monarchs, bees, and other beneficial species