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Bloodsucking mosquitoes are driving Anchorage buggy

Kyle Hopkins
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Nena Robb dreamed of mosquitoes Monday night. A cloud of bloodsuckers, careening into one another above the bed in her Midtown ranch house home.

"They're definitely on my mind this year," said Robb, 44, who has lived in Anchorage since childhood and considers this summer to be among the buggiest she can remember.

Many other Alaskans apparently think so, too. At Alaska Mill & Feed, customers have already purchased more mosquito traps than they did all last summer, said store manager Pete Hitchings.

"We can't keep those things in stock. That's a $300, $400 item," Hitchings said. "So they're bad somewhere, or people perceive them as worse than normal."

But are they really worse? Entomologists aren't so sure.

No one counts or predicts mosquito populations year-to-year in Alaska, said Michael Rasy, a pest management specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. He's worked for the university for a decade, and every year someone declares it the worst mosquito season ever.

"I don't think there is any way to quantify it," Rasy said.

What's clear is the bugs are back, biting and bad enough to send shoppers running for their DEET. Ask any biker, hiker or gardener. Rasy suspects that's the result of a wet, cool spring rather than heavy snowfall.

The 2011-2012 winter was Anchorage's snowiest on record. Could that be the culprit? Maybe not. The snow melted relatively quickly in April, seeping in to the unfrozen soil beneath, Rasy said.

"There wasn't a whole lot of standing water related to that huge snowpack," he said.

More troublesome for people in Anchorage may be pools created by spring showers. Rasy recently discovered quarter-inch mosquito larvae swimming in rainwater gathering in old tires behind his Airport Heights home.

"It was like a little habitat in there," Rasy said. He dumped the water and recommends cutting back weeds to thin the swarms. Mosquitoes flourish in thick, wet vegetation, he said.

"It might be the year to really go to town with the weedwacker and mow the lawn shorter than you normally would," Rasy said.

MISTAKEN IDENTITY

Even as mosquitoes are on the prowl, other high-profile pests are struggling this year.

The Bruce spanworms and autumnal moths that decimated blueberry plants last year in Arctic Valley hatched in May, Rasy said. But the vegetation there was still dormant due to the snowpack and cool spring.

"The caterpillars, there was nothing for them to feed on ... they are basically starving to death," Rasy said.

It's unclear whether the berry crop will rebound as early as this summer, he said.

As for all the mosquitoes, Rasy said the pests have been persistent this year but some of the most recent sightings may be a case of mistaken identity. The Cooperative Extension fielded a series of calls around Wednesday and Thursday of last week complaining about insects that are roughly the same size as mosquitoes, but were actually non-biting March flies.

As a self-described "bug guy," Rasy said he loves insects. But the short-lived March fly invasion -- they only live about four days -- was a bit much.

"It was almost impossible not to eat some bugs just by talking or walking," he said.

DIE BEFORE WINTER

More standing stagnant water generally means more mosquitoes.

Precipitation is slightly above average so far this year in Anchorage, though that includes some snowfall from earlier in the year, said Mike Lawson, a meteorologist for the Weather Service in Anchorage.

Mosquito eggs are laid in pools or attached to vegetation in the fall and can overwinter in the ice, said entomologist Derek Sikes, curator of insects for the University of Alaska Museum. Had water levels been low in Anchorage this spring, fewer eggs would have hatched, he said.

"They'll mate this summer, lay eggs and die before the winter," Sikes said.

Whatever the reason, Robb, the Midtowner, says she can't remember mosquitoes this thick in Anchorage ever before. In other years it was wasps or potato bugs that plagued the neighborhood, she said.

Experts couldn't say which insect will swarm the city next.

"You never know what it's going to be," Rasy said. "There's always seemingly a bug of the year that gets the nomination for the most annoying or most destructive."

Twitter updates: twitter.com/adn_kylehopkins. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at khopkins@adn.com.


By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News
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