When the COVID situation reared its head back in March of 2020, I wasn’t sure how it would impact activities at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. While there was a shift to handling diagnostics mostly remotely, in the end, 2020’s caseload of 2,533 ID requests was just shy of 2019’s all-time record of 2,542 cases.
With Governor Evers’ Stay-at-Home Order last spring, our attentions were occupied by the unraveling pandemic and caseload at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab was lighter than usual around that time. However, as Wisconsinites shifted to working from home, it meant spending more time in yards and many Wisconsinites pulled out their green thumbs and established COVID “Victory Gardens”. As a result, the diagnostic lab saw a record number of cases in July of 2020, with close to 600 ID requests that month alone.
Outreach activities of the lab saw a dramatic shift as well. With in-person presentations and workshops off the table, virtual events afforded new opportunities—like a Japanese beetle seminar in July which drew nearly 900 participants. Regular events, like my appearances on WPR’s The Larry Meiller Show also continued through 2020, although I fielded calls from my home’s “reading nook” rather than the WPR studio.
One of the biggest insect stories of 2020 was the Asian giant hornet. Last May we learned that Asian giant hornets had survived the winter in the Pacific Northwest. This of course led to a distinct increase of so-called “sightings” of that insect in Wisconsin, although every “sighting” ended up being common insects from our area. Last year, I saw dozens of ID requests for insects which ended up being look-alikes such as cicada killer wasps, pigeon horntails, and great golden digger wasps. To date, the nearest sighting of the Asian giant hornet is well over 1,000 miles from us here in Wisconsin and poses no immediate threat to the upper Midwest. Further reading: 6 Things to Know about the Asian Giant Hornet.
Some invasive pests had big years as well. The viburnum leaf beetle, lily leaf beetle, purple carrot seed moth, and brown marmorated stink bug all increased their footholds in the state. Japanese beetle numbers varied a lot depending on where you were located in Wisconsin. Some areas saw little pressure during droughty periods, while other parts of Wisconsin saw high Japanese beetle activity. Gypsy moths had been quiet in Wisconsin for several years, but increased their numbers last year. I saw a distinct increase of gypsy moth cases in 2020, and I’ll be keeping a close eye on that species in 2021.
Come fall, we saw some stretches of unseasonably pleasant temperatures in October, November, and December. During those periods, multicolored Asian lady beetles—which had been lurking in the background for several years—returned to the spotlight. The multicolored Asian lady beetle activity around Wisconsin was some of the highest of the last decade. Not to be left out of the fun, minute pirate bugs were abundant in some parts of the state and made warm, sunny fall days a little less pleasant due to their biting habits. Speaking of biting insects, black flies were abundant in 2020 and made outdoor activities more challenging in June and July. Mosquito activity varied around the state, although we did see a few cases of the Eastern Equine Encephalitis in 2020.
While we won’t see a big emergence of 17-year periodical cicadas in Wisconsin until 2024, small numbers of out-of-sync “stragglers” did emerge in southeastern Wisconsin last summer.
No two years are the same at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab and that includes some of the “X-Files” type cases as well. Some of my favorite cases from 2020 include identifying phorid flies from dead radioactive cats (it’s a long story…), a grim-reaper-esque dryinid wasp, several massive black-witch moths from Central America, and a case involving a black widow spider found in a head of broccoli from the grocery store. Never a dull moment at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab!
Director, UW Insect Diagnostic Lab