Tiny insect problems about to get much worse

Have you ever heard the buzzing flight of a locust horde? Or the horrible gnawing as gypsy moth caterpillars devour the forest around you? There's nothing worse in the world, for those sounds are the grim reminder that humanity is not the only hunger that shapes this world.

Insect plagues and apocalypses go together like firstborns and blood sacrifices. Either the plague precedes the apocalypse as some kind of warning, or it acts as a trigger by eating all the food. Some might claim that it's not a real apocalypse if there's a world left after, but what's a foodless world to the hungry dead?

Deer ticks

Good news for couch potatoes across New England: In just a few short years, the three weeks in July where it's warm enough to go outside will soon be so full of ticks you'll have to wear a HAZMAT suit just to pressure wash them off your car.

The deer tick is the size of a sesame seed, and if it latches on to your skin, it can change your life forever. While medical professionals hold that it takes an average of 24 hours for the tick to begin introducing pathogens to the human body, why wait? To protect your precious skin, wear long pants and tuck the cuffs into your boots. Tuck your shirt into your belt, as well. Ticks climb up by impulse, so they're likely to seek the highest point of skin they can reach before biting. You'll be a sweaty overdressed catastrophe, but at least the ticks will only bite your wrists and neckline.

Thanks to warmer-than-average winters resulting in a much lower mortality rate, more ticks are surviving to the spring thaw, meaning they get to lay more eggs, which have a better survival rate to lay more eggs, on and on, until no one goes on picnics anymore. As warm and even snowless winters become the norm, tick populations will continue to explode.

While Lyme disease is a terrible, life-altering illness that can often linger in the body decades after initial treatment, that's but one of the dozen-or-more illnesses any one tick can carry. Common landscaping practices make the situation even worse. Sterile expanses of lawn provide little habitat for tick predators, and commonly used plants like Japanese barberry (also invasive!) act as excellent shelter for huge numbers of the buggers.

To protect yourself and your family, treat your outside clothes with permethrine, landscape with native plants to attract tick-eating animals, and dress like an L.L. Bean mannequin the second you dare set foot outside.

Hemlock wooly adelgid

"ASEXUAL JAPANESE FEMINISTS DESTROY PENNSYLVANIA'S CHRISTMAS TREES" is the kind of sentence you might get if you locked a Breitbart writer in an oil tank and pushed it down a hill, but it's almost an accurate description of what's happening with the hemlock woolly adelgid.

Tiny beetles with a big appetites, adelgids feed by injecting their needle-mouths into the base of evergreen needles, to drink the tree's stored energy. In the hemlock woolly's case, it reproduces asexually and only produces female, egg-laying young, creating two generations a year. It hibernates in a hairy, waxy shell during the hottest part of the summer, hence "woolly." It feeds only on the eastern and Carolina hemlock.

While one tree out of a whole forest might not sound like a terrible impact, hemlocks comprise a huge portion of forests all across America. They're one of the top five most common species in much of New England and play a huge role in stabilizing stream banks and preventing erosion. A loss of hemlocks could wipe out whole river ecosystems as dying trees are unable to halt erosion.

To put it another way, your children won't be able to fish because of a tiny, hairy beetle that only eats one kind of tree.

Red and white pine scale insects

Pine-needle scale insects are tiny, protect themselves with waxy coats, and lay waste to all in their domain. The two most notorious, the red and white pine scale insects, feed on a wide variety of evergreens across the eastern half of the country.

Pine scale insects rarely act alone, however. Government scientists have identified at least four fungal pathogens that hitchhike on scale insects, turning them from a mild inconvenience to deranged tree killers. Trees infested in New England live an average of 10–14 years, which can make detecting infestations a challenge, and in the South, whole swaths of forests are eaten in at most eight years, making control impossible. Areas cleared of pine are easy pickings for invasive plants quick to outcompete slower-growing hardwoods, like kudzu.

A loss of pine trees would effectively end recreational hunting, as conifers provide a large percentage of the winter nutrient load for deer and other wild game species. We can make things easier on the trees by waiting for the insects' winter dormancy period before harvesting, but unlike adelgids, no effective bio-control agents have been discovered.

Emerald ash borer

The emerald ash borer is a deceptively gorgeous insect with a hunger for every one of North America's eight billion ash trees. With a lethality rate of 100 percent and no natural predators, the emerald ash borer looks at our forests like a shark looks at a lobster tank.

While most insects only do damage as adults, the bulk of a borer's damage is done during its two-year incubation inside the living tissue of tree bark. Also called "xylem," this soft woody layer transports water and nutrients throughout the rest of the tree. Removing a portion of the xylem by, say, eating it, would be akin to removing only the veins and tendons from your wrist or arms. It might look attached from the outside, but with no method for moving blood or oxygen, decay sets in quickly.

Because the larvae are physically inside the tree, we're left looking for secondary symptoms of infestation, like dead and dying branches, sawdust at the base of the tree, or unusual growth. American woodpeckers, normally well-suited to this kind of pest, offer little assistance in detecting problems in still-living portions of affected trees, being more accustomed to tearing through dead tissue.

Science has isolated a few insect predators and even a promising insect-based fungus, but we're going to need extensive testing to make sure the imported species don't become a bigger problem than the one they were imported to cure.

Asian longhorned beetle

Brought to America in contaminated pallet wood, the Asian longhorned beetle was able to fortify its stronghold in Massachusetts for nearly two full decades before one lone adult managed to land itself on the backyard grill of a USDA forester. Since then, wey've been waging a scorched earth campaign against the swarm, cutting down infected trees and even removing possible host trees, to deny the beetle any possible ground.

Active for only two weeks during the breeding season, the longhorn hates moving and will prefer to lay multiple generations of eggs in the same tree if possible, the one saving grace that has slowed their inexorable march outward to the rest of the country. Much less picky than other species, the longhorn poses a threat to New England's maple trees and lumber yards, and even the cottage firewood industry can be disrupted by quarantines designed to help slow the tide of insect invaders.

There's reason to hope, however. On-the-ground arborists across Worcester (truly the most noble of professions) reported their first full year with no beetle sightings, and traps have so far failed to find any specimens traveling outside the quarantine zone. With enough grit, axes, and binoculars, we might just be able to save the maple syrup industry.

Gypsy moth

We first imported the gypsy moth to America to kickstart a domestic silk industry in Massachusetts. We were swiftly punished for our greed when the gypsy moth caterpillar escaped in the early 1900s. Swift and decisive action was unable to completely remove the pest, but successive years of attempts at control have helped keep the populations at a manageable level.

Until now, that is. Last year's unusually dry, warm spring halted the spread of natural bio-control agents, leading to an outbreak in Massachusetts that left huge swaths of forest completely defoliated. While early summer rains did slow their feeding, the energy cost to a forest for growing two full sets of leaves in a single year is huge.

Spreading up to 13 miles in a single year, the young caterpillars release a silken thread that carries them off on the wind, like spiders but worse. Because they are already so widespread, even small-scale disruptions in normal rainfall patterns can swell caterpillar populations in the surrounding areas.

Pine bark beetle

Here's how the pine bark beetle works: When the female chews an egg hole into the tree, she introduces blue-stain fungal spores into the phloem of the tree. These spores expand to quickly clog the tree's ability to flush out the insects with pitch. It also ends the tree's ability to uptake water, so 90 percent of infected trees die within one year of initial outbreak.

That means the beetles spread fast and wide, reaching all 19 western states and major parts of Canada in an infestation 10 times larger than any seen before. It is, quite simply, the largest blight ever witnessed in North America, and it's all caused by a native insect.

The mass death of pine trees is having ripple effects, reaching everything from the price of lumber to the conservation status of the grizzly bear, as the pines so loved by this bark beetle also provide most of a bear's winter nutrition. No amount of good intentions and volunteer reseeding can compensate for the role even one mature pine plays in an ecosystem, some hardy varieties of which need 50 years to even produce one cone.

Fire ants AND crazy ants, OH MY!

Fire ants are a known threat. There might be five times as many in North America as their native South America, but they largely stay outside of human habitation, preferring to make every yard and garden a potentially sting-filled adventure. While they are spreading northward with the shifting climate, many biomes in heavily affected area adjusted to this new, flaming reality. Species that couldn't compete died out, and other species filled those ecological niches left behind. That's not "good," it's just "less bad."

All of that's about to change, again, thanks to a six-legged atrocity named the tawny crazy ant. Unlike the fire ant, Science warns that crazy ants love to live all up inside a person's walls, as they are unable to excavate their own tunnels. They are especially drawn to the tiny spaces inside electrical stuff, which can result in a swarm so bad it stops your devices from working. In one case, ants took over 90 out of 150 AC units in a Waco apartment complex. Exterminators took two months to remove the infestation, because the smell of an electrocuted crazy ant causes other crazy ants to swarm.

Evidence points to a massive war between the fire ants and the crazy ants. While the crazy ant lacks the viscous venom that the fire ant draws its name from, it more than makes up for in sheer volume, often outnumbering other species 100 to 1. Areas with heavy crazy ant infestation show a precipitous decline in fire ants, so at least some of the fire ants' northward migration is of necessity as much as conquest. "Alien menace pursued by alien-ier menace" is how you know Bioware wrote this reality's punchline.

Tiger mosquito

Decorated in a fetchingly stylish silver-and-black, the tiger mosquito's main threat is displacing native types of mosquito. No, that's a lie: it's definitely the witches' brew of disease and pestilence it keeps in it's horrible needle-mouth.

While best known for transmitting Zika to Olympians, it carries up to 30 diseases, including yellow fever, Dengue fever, and encephalitis (that's Science for SWOLLEN BRAIN), and it will even give your dog heartworms. Ha ha, remember when mosquito bites used to just itch a lot, instead of maybe killing you? Thanks, global warming!

There are some steps you can take to mosquito-proof your home. Removing stagnant water sources is a great first step, but unlike most mosquitos, tigers place their eggs NEAR water, not inside it. They also need much less water than native mosquitos and can even reproduce in running water. While they do not travel more than a half mile from their breeding location, they are active all day and will repeatedly bite the same subject to get a full load of blood.

So, yeah, if you need another reason to not work on your beach body, "my insurance doesn't cover mosquito diseases" should work great.

Potato leafhopper

Most insects named after a plant have the habit of only eating that plant. The potato leafhopper is an exception, being a generalist who feeds on over 200 varieties of cultivated and wild vegetation, including: Everything You Love To Eat.

The nymph form is the deadliest, as unlike adults, they inject a toxin into the plant while feeding, preventing photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is how the plant got big enough to feed the leafhopper, officially making leafhopper nymphs the worst kind of Airbnb guest. Incidentally, the yellowing and leaf-crinkling that accompanies leafhopper feeding is called "hopperburn," so we need a new term to describe the feeling of frenching an unshaven Dennis Hopper.

Hoppers create three to four generations in a single summer, so even repeat plantings will be susceptible to infestation. Their migration patterns have also started to change—adults have been moving some 10 days earlier than previous records, and summer heat waves boost reproduction while dehydrating plants already unable to rehydrate themselves. Since damage can take up to a week to manifest, by the time the farmer notices, the treatment window has passed. Cutting infected plants prevents nymphs from spreading, but winged adults travel hundreds of miles in migration, and are perfectly capable of resettling in nearby areas before returning to swarm on new seedlings. This represents a huge threat to commercial alfalfa and soybean harvests, as well as Everything Else You Love To Eat.