If you’ve noticed all the lawn signs for mosquito treatments, you may be wondering if mosquito yard sprays harm other insects. If so, you’re not alone.As an Extension entomologist, this is a common question that I get from the public every year.To get to the bottom of this question, it helps to understand the different types of mosquito spraying that’s done.
One approach (Ultra Low Volume or ULV) is sometimes used by municipalities or abatement districts to control mosquitoes. These ULV applications generally involve using specialized equipment mounted on trucks or aircraft to apply extremely tiny droplets which kill adult mosquitoes by direct contact as the droplets float in the air. Such applications use very small volumes of insecticides either undiluted or with minimal dilution and are often applied after dark when mosquitoes are most active. The microscopic droplets from ULV treatments disperse relatively quickly and have little residual activity—think of them like a “one time strike” to knock down mosquito numbers.
The vast majority of research on mosquito sprays and non-target organisms has looked at these ULV-type treatments. Some good news is that these studies suggest that impacts to non-target insects are relatively small and short-lived.It turns out that the ULV treatments are most effective on insects with very small body mass, so insects larger than mosquitoes tend to be spared.A good summary of the impacts of ULV treatments on non-target organisms can be found in a 2012 review paper by J.A.S. Bonds in Medical and Veterinary Entomology.
Case closed, right?—Not quite. Here in Wisconsin, we don’t really use ULV treatments a whole lot for mosquitoes.The common yard treatments are what we’d call “perimeter”, “barrier”, or “residual” treatments.Such treatments are applied via a backpack sprayer to create a coating or “barrier” on treated surfaces which affects mosquitoes that land on it.These treatments involve applying a residual insecticide (usually from the pyrethroid group) to vegetation in yards and around structures.The pyrethroid products are broad-spectrum and often last for a few weeks or longer depending on the formulation.These same ingredients (and sometimes the exact same products) can also be used to control a wide range of yard, garden, and structural pests (e.g., Japanese beetles, garden pests, household ants, etc.).
While the pyrethroids are very common and widely used for a range of purposes, there’s a knowledge gap when it comes to the impacts of mosquito “barrier” treatments on other insects.While this knowledge gap exists, a few studies raise concerns.One study by Dr. Karen Oberhauser and colleagues found that monarch caterpillars could be harmed or killed even 3 weeks after spraying.A more recent (2022) study by Qualls et al. found that honey bees were harmed 28 days after “barrier” treatments were applied.Thus, if a yard is being sprayed for mosquitoes monthly during the warm season, there are reasons for concern.More research is needed to help understand the effects of these “barrier” yard treatments on insects that often land on vegetation in yards, such as moths, butterflies, fireflies and other beetles, true flies, bees, wasps and other pollinators.
Bonds, J.A.S. 2012. Ultra-low-volume space sprays in mosquito control: a critical review. Medical and Veterinary Entomology. 26: 121-130.
Oberhauser, K.S., Brinda, S.J., Weaver, S., Moon, R.D., Manweiler, S.A., and N. Read. 2006. Growth and Survival of Monarch Butterflies (Lepidoptera: Danaidae) After Exposure to Permethrin Barrier Treatments. Environ. Entomol. 35(6): 1626-1634.
Qualls, W.A., Moser, B.A., Periera, R.M., Xue, R-D, and P.G. Koehler. 2022. Impacts Of Barrier Insecticide Mixtures On Mosquito, Aedes Aegypti And Non-Target Honey Bee, Apis Mellifera. Journal of the Florida Mosquito Control Association 69: 34-42.
What a year it’s been. Things seemed like they were getting back to normal this past summer, only for the Omicron variant to pop up and say—not so fast. Despite all the ups-and-downs, services have carried on at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab in one way or another through the second year of the COVID pandemic. Things have changed a bit and these days I’m on campus much more than a year ago. Throughout the pandemic, demand for services at the IDL has remained high with over 2,400 ID requests in 2021.
Since COVID first popped up, there have been some subtle shifts in lab statistics—an increase in the percentage of samples solely involving digital images (vs physical specimens) and an overall increase in the proportion of cases coming from the public. Considering the pandemic, this makes sense. Over the last two years, campus buildings and the IDL have been closed to visitors at various points, meaning that clients couldn’t drop off samples. In other cases, it might have been tough to make it to a post office or the UPS store to ship a sample in. Likewise, with many folks working from home, it likely led to more time out in yards and gardens, or visiting local parks or hiking trails—and more time to notice insects.
Looking back at the cases from this last year, 2021 was a unique year due to our unusually hot and dry weather conditions in Wisconsin. Based on data from the Wisconsin State Climatology Office, Madison was quite warm and saw an extra ~500 growing degree days in 2021, but was down about 15 inches of precipitation for the year. Some parts of the state were even hotter and/or drier than Madison and most of the state was categorized as either unusually dry or in some stage of drought during the year [US Drought Monitor].
The weather conditions this year led to some shifts in the insects and related arthropods seen at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab. A pest that had been relatively quiet the last decade, Lymantria dispar (formerly known as the “gypsy moth”), thrived with the dry conditions this past spring. In “rainy” years, a beneficial fungus (Entomophaga maimaiga) can “kick in” to help keep their numbers in check. If 2022 is another dry year, we could be in store for even more problems from this invasive species. Certain mites also thrived this year and I saw a large number of cases of eriophyid mites causing damage to plants ranging from coneflowers to garlic. Springtails weren’t necessarily more abundant (they feed on decaying plant matter and thrive under damp conditions), but I suspect the hot & dry conditions sent them looking for any place darker, damper, and cooler. This led to lots of reports as they were trying to invade structures.
We’ll likely continue to see the impacts of the 2021 drought for some time. Plants, including established trees and shrubs, also suffered from the drought and this will likely lead to an increase in reports of “secondary” insect pests in the next few years. Certain insects can be generally “well behaved” and leave healthy plants alone, only to attack stressed and weakened plants. As an example, cases of the two-lined chestnut borer (a notable pest of oaks) often increase 1-3 years after a drought, and I’m expecting to see more cases in the coming years.
In the realm of medical entomology, it was a good year for ticks both in Wisconsin and other parts of the US. Black flies (Family Simuliidae) had another strong year in many parts of the state, although calls about these were shifted a bit earlier than in previous years (likely due to an “early” spring). If there’s a silver lining to the drought, it’s that mosquito pressure was down in Wisconsin for much of the summer. As we received a bit more rain in the latter half of summer we saw some late season activity, but disease pressure remained low (only three West Nile Virus cases in Wisconsin, compared to 50+ in a “bad” year). As recreational and work-related travel increased a bit more in 2021 compared to 2020, I did see an uptick in reports of bed bugs.
With the Asian giant hornet garnering attention in the news for the second year in a row, I continued to see lots of reports of cicada killer wasps, pigeon horntails, great golden digger wasps, and other large insects. Unfortunately, with the sensationalized hype about “murder hornets” (ahem—New York Times…) I had plenty of reports of other large harmless insects that were killed simply because they “looked big and scary” (one particular photo of a tomentose burying beetle comes to mind…). Overall, the Asian giant hornet story was really pretty quiet this year, with a limited amount of activity in a small part of the Pacific Northwest. As of December 2021, the Asian giant hornet has not been found in Wisconsin or anywhere close to us.
I had plenty of reports of social wasps (yellowjackets, bald-faced hornets, and paper wasps) as well as bumble bees this year—including three reports of the endangered rusty-patched bumble bee in the same week in early August! We missed the Brood X “cicada craze” here in Wisconsin, but I still had plenty of questions about them from reporters. We will, however, see some periodical cicadas (Brood XIII) in 2024 in southern Wisconsin.
As weather gets warmer and the outdoors beckons, people across Wisconsin are spending more time with the activities they wait for all winter long, including picnicking, hiking, camping, boating, fishing and more. While thoughts might be turning to filling the cooler with cold beverages and packing enough charcoal for the grill, there’s another aspect to the season that demands attention: tiny ticks and their potential to cause big problems this time of the year.
Avoid: Given their small size, ticks have limited mobility. To find hosts, ticks often hang out on plants — such as tall, weedy grasses along the edges of trails and in wooded areas with dense vegetation — and they wait for a mammal to pass by. Steering clear of these areas can help reduce the chances of encountering ticks in the first place.
Be aware: Become familiar with common ticks and symptoms of tick-borne illnesses to know what to look for. Anybody bitten by a tick should get it properly identified and consult their health care provider about any potential medical concerns.
Clothing: Long-sleeved clothes provide a physical barrier to help prevent ticks from getting to skin. Wearing lighter-colored clothing such as khakis can also make it easier to spot darker-colored ticks. Tucking pants into socks can serve as an additional protection to make it harder for ticks to bite.
DEET and other repellents: A number of Environmental Protection Agency-approved repellents (such as DEET) can help keep ticks at bay when properly used. Always consult the product label for important usage instructions, such as application to skin versus clothing and how often to reapply. As another consideration, clothing can be treated with repellent products containing permethrin. These products designed for clothing treatments are often sold at outdoor and camping stores and can provide long-term protection from ticks when properly used. Some outdoor clothing brands even use fabrics impregnated with permethrin to provide protection for extended periods of time, even through repeated washings.
Examine: Tick checks can be an important precaution for both people and pets. To effectively transmit the bacteria that cause Lyme disease, deer ticks have to be attached and feeding for extended periods of time, usually at least 24 hours. This time requirement for infection means that daily checks can help find and remove ticks before they’ve had a chance to transmit the bacteria. If a tick is found biting a person or pet, the best removal method is to use tweezers to grab near the tick’s mouth parts and use a slow steady pull to remove it.
Family pets: Don’t forget about four-legged friends — pets that spend time outdoors can also be affected by tick-borne diseases. Veterinarians should be consulted to select appropriate preventative tick (and flea) products. Topical repellent sprays are also available for those times people take their pets hiking in prime tick habitat. Pay special attention when selecting products for pets, as there are important differences between products available for dogs and cats. Always check with the veterinarian with any questions. For longer term prevention, Lyme disease vaccines for dogs are also available through veterinarians.
Asian giant hornets have hit the news recently, sometimes going by the name of “murder hornets”. Below are six key things to know about these insects and the situation in North America:
1) What is the Asian Giant Hornet?
The Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia), which is also known as the “great sparrow bee” in its native range (or recently sensationalized as the “murder hornet”) is a wasp species native to parts of southern and eastern Asia. The Asian giant hornet is amongst the world’s largest wasps, with queens approaching a length of 2 inches (typically ~1.5 inches). Workers and males are smaller, but still measure over an inch long. Asian giant hornets have a distinctive appearance with a bright yellowish-orange head, a dark body, and alternating dark and yellowish stripes on the gaster (“abdomen”). This species creates subterranean nests, which commonly have a peak workforce of around 100 workers.
Asian giant hornets pose threats as an invasive species in North America. These insects are efficient predators with complex hunting behaviors. While Asian giant hornets prey upon a wide range of insects, they are capable of attacking honey bees. Under the right conditions, Asian giant hornets can decimate hives of European honey bees (Apis mellifera) within a few hours. Their potent stings can also pose medical concerns for humans.
2) What’s the risk in the Midwest?
Based on the current situation, the risk from Asian giant hornets in Wisconsin and the Midwestern US is extremely low. To date, Asian giant hornets have never been found in Wisconsin or surrounding states. A very small number of Asian giant hornets were spotted in southwestern British Columbia and northwestern Washington state in the second half of 2019. For Wisconsin, these sightings have been roughly 1,500 miles from us. At the time this article was written (early May 2020), Asian giant hornets had not been spotted in North America in 2020. Update 5/27/20: we recently learned that AGHs have made it through the winter in North America. This species recently resurfaced, as reported in the New York Times. Despite this recent finding, all confirmed sightings of the AGH are from the Pacific Northwest and these insects pose little risk for the Midwest at this time. Update 12/20: No substantial changes by the end of 2020—in North America, AGHs are still only known from far northwestern Washington State and nearby parts of British Columbia. This insect has not been documented anywhere outside of that range.
3) What’s the timeline of the Asian giant hornet story?
Asian giant hornets have gotten a lot of attention in the news recently, but these stories really missed the main “action”, which occurred roughly half a year ago. (Imagine if Sport Illustrated took half a year to write about the Super Bowl’s winning team!). The story of the Asian giant hornet in North America began in August of 2019 when a beekeeper in Nanaimo, British Columbia (SE Vancouver Island) spotted these wasps. Three specimens were collected at the time and their identity was confirmed.
Also in August of 2019, a beekeeper in Northern Bellingham, Washington (US) observed Asian giant hornets, but no specimens were collected. Back in Nanaimo, British Columbia, an Asian giant hornet nest was located and eradicated in an urban park (Robin’s Park) in September. A month later (late October, 2019) a specimen was photographed in nearby mainland British Columbia (White Rock, BC). Around that time, the same beekeeper in Northern Bellingham, Washington observed Asian giant hornets attacking a hive. The last sighting of the Asian giant hornet occurred near Blaine, Washington in December of 2019, when a dead specimen was collected and a live specimen was spotted at a hummingbird feeder.
Update June, 2020: Small numbers of AGHs have been reported in North America—but only in the pacific Northwest.
4) Have Asian giant hornets become established in North America?
The ability of the Asian giant hornet to survive and spread in North America is not understood at this time. In its native range, the Asian giant hornet is associated with forested and low mountainous areas with temperate or subtropical climates. A key unanswered question at the moment is: have the Asian giant hornets successfully overwintered in North America? Update 5/27: we recently learned that AGHs have made it through the winter. This species recently resurfaced, as reported in the New York Times.
Asian giant hornets overwinter as queens. If previously fertilized, queens attempt to establish nests during the spring months. Established nests won’t produce the next batch of queens to carry on their “blood lines” until mid-fall, meaning that responders monitoring the situation in the Pacific northwest will have roughly half a year to hunt down any nests. For this reason, 2020 will be a critical “make or break” year in the story of the Asian giant hornet in North America.
Responders in the Pacific Northwest have plans to monitor for Asian giant hornets with traps and visual methods. If spotted, individual hornets can potentially be tracked back to their nest to allow responders to eradicate the colonies. Full details of the USDA response plan can be viewed here.
5) Health risks to humans are low
By referring to the Asian giant hornet as “murder hornets”, recent news stories have given the false impression that these insects pose a regular threat to humans. Many stories have repeated the claim that Asian giant hornets kill around 50 people a year in Japan, where these hornets naturally occur. In reality, the actual numbers are much lower. Based on publicly available data from the Japanese e-Stat statistics portal, from 2009-2018 an average of 18 deaths were reported annually in Japan from hornets, wasps, and bees combined. For comparative purposes, roughly twice as many annual deaths (average of 35) were reported as the result of slipping and drowning in bathtubs over that same period of time.
Nonetheless, Asian giant hornets do have potent venom and 1/4 inch-long stingers, which pack a punch. Due to their large physical size, a relatively large volume of venom can be injected leading to painful stings. If many stings occur (such as if one were to disrupt a nest), medical attention is advised.
6) Are there any look-alikes?
While we don’t have Asian giant hornets in Wisconsin or the Midwest, we have plenty of other insects that are currently being mistaken for the Asian giant hornet or could be mistaken for these hornets later this year. Panicked individuals thinking they’ve found an Asian giant hornet might end up killing native, beneficial insects which pose little risk to humans—such as bumble bee queens, which are currently trying to establish their nests for the year.
Historically, the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab receives many suspected reports of Asian giant hornets every year—all of these have been misidentifications by the submitters.To date, no confirmed sightings of the Asian giant hornet have occurred in Wisconsin or the Midwestern US. However, with the media spotlight on the Asian giant hornet, an increase in false reports is expected at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab this year. Click the diagram below to view a full-size version.
Some of the commonest look-alikes include:
Cicada Killer Wasps (Sphecius speciosus) These are the closest match in terms of size. However, these solitary ground-nesting wasps are really quite harmless, unless you happen to be a cicada... Because these insects don’t have a colony to defend, they are very unlikely to sting. This is the top look-alike reported to the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab every year. For additional details see this post: Asian Giant Hornets—Nope!
Great Golden Digger Wasps (Sphex ichneumoneus) These solitary ground nesting wasps capture and feed katydids and related insects to their young. Because these insects don’t have a colony to defend, they tend to be docile.
Pigeon Horntails (Tremex columba) These primitive wasp-like insects develop inside of decaying trees as larvae and can be common. They are not capable of stinging, but females do possess a prominent egg-laying structure (ovipositor).
Elm Sawflies (Cimbex americana) These plump, wasp-like insects cannot sting. The caterpillar-like larvae can feed on elms, willows, birches, and other hardwood trees.
Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.) The Midwest is home to over 20 species of bumble bees. These beneficial pollinators play important roles in the ecosystem. Bumble bees do live together as colonies and can act defensively if the nest is directly disturbed, but these important pollinators are generally docile. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and naturally die out in the fall.
Yellowjackets (Vespula spp. & Dolichovespula spp.) The Midwest is home to more than 10 species of yellowjackets. Common species, such as the German yellowjacket (Vespula germanica) are typically around ½ inch in length. Yellowjackets are social insects and depending on the species, nests can occur in the ground, in hollow voids (such as soffit overhangs or wall voids), or as exposed as papier-mâché type aerial nests. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and die out naturally in the fall.
Bald-Faced Hornets (Dolichovespula maculata) Our largest social wasp in the Midwestern US, reaching lengths of approximately ¾ inch. Bald-faced hornets are technically a type of “yellowjacket” but have a distinctive black and white appearance. These insects create large papier-mâché type nests, which can approach the size of a basketball. Annual colonies reach maximum size in late summer and die out in the fall.
Despite being winter, Wisconsin has recently been in the news because of insects—blister beetles—and their potentially deadly impacts on horses. In addition to their medical significance, these insects have a long and interesting story with some surprising twists.
Blister beetles comprise a diverse family of insects (Family Meloidae), with over 3,000 species known from around the globe. In the Unites States, we’ve got approximately 400 species, with the bulk of the diversity centered in the dry southwestern part of the country. However, this group is widely distributed across the lower 48 states, with nearly 30 species known from Wisconsin alone.
The common blister beetles species of the Upper Midwest are oblong and typically range from ½-inch to ¾-inch long, although other species can vary in size. Unlike the stereotypical “crunch” of most other beetles—think of accidentally stepping on a May/June beetle—blister beetles have softer bodies and are similar to fireflies in this regard. A few of our Midwestern species are striped or brightly colored, but many common species are dark-colored, being mostly black, grey, or a dark metallic green.
But don’t let their drab appearance fool you. Blister beetles wield a potent defensive toxin—cantharidin. In adult blister beetles, this compound is produced by males, which provide it to females during courtship. Females then use it to chemically protect their eggs.
The properties of cantharidin are well-known, and this chemical irritant and its coleopteran source have a surprising history dating back thousands of years. For example, Pliny the Elder knew of the toxic effects and mentioned blister beetles in his writings. Old medical reference books list a number of potential uses for cantharidin, ranging from the treatment of skin conditions to a supposed remedy for baldness. However, cantharidin might have harmed more than it helped. Dermal exposure has long been known to cause irritation and blistering—hence the common name of “blister beetles”. If ingested, symptoms can be much more serious: severe irritation of the gastrointestinal and urinary tracts, kidney and heart damage, and a cascade of other undesirable effects. Human deaths have been recorded in the medical literature and in a recent report, a soldier consumed a single blister beetle on a dare and ended up hospitalized with acute kidney injury.
Surprisingly, cantharidin was also historically deployed as an aphrodisiac—Spanish fly. In the days before the little blue pill, Spanish fly was known for its ability to irritate the urethral lining to produce a “stimulating” effect. In one historical report, French Legionnaires in North Africa complained of priapism after feasting upon frogs that had happened to eat blister beetles (frogs seem to be unaffected by cantharidin).
Humans aren’t the only creatures affected by blister beetles and horses are especially sensitive. Ingestion of only a few grams of cantharidin can potentially be lethal to an adult horse. Blister beetle poisoning is rare in equines, but can occur if the adult beetles happen to be in an alfalfa field feeding on blossoms at the time of harvest and are crushed by farm equipment. In an unfortunate situation, blister beetles have recently been reported in connection with the deaths of over a dozen horses in Mauston, Wisconsin.
Blister beetles have another noteworthy Wisconsin connection from the history books. The former governor of Wisconsin, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, was well-known for his progressive politics as well as an impressive head of hair. His secret?—a hair tonic containing cologne, oils of English lavender and rosemary, and a cantharidin-containing tincture made from blister beetles.
Every year is different when it comes to mosquito-borne diseases.During the summer and fall of 2019, the eastern US has seen a bump in cases of a potentially lethal disease—Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE)—which has led to health concerns. Here are five key things to know about Eastern Equine Encephalitis:
1. Eastern Equine Encephalitis is a mosquito-borne disease. But one species in particular,Culiseta melanura, plays a critical role.Culiseta melanura is widely distributed across the eastern US, but is specifically associated with freshwater swamps with standing trees.The larvae of this mosquito tend to develop in small, protected, naturally occurring cavities (“crypts”) amongst the roots of trees such as maple, hemlock, and cedar. Interestingly, Culiseta melanura, does not like to bite humans and almost exclusively takes blood meals from birds.However, as EEE builds up in local bird populations, other mosquito species with more flexible feeding habits can act as a “bridge” and allow the disease to move from birds to mammals with subsequent blood meals.A dozen or more mosquito species from the genera Aedes, Coquillettidia, Culex, and Ochlerotatus have been implicated in vectoring the disease from birds to humans.
2. Eastern Equine Encephalitis can pose significant risks to human health, but most human infections result in minor or no symptoms.Eastern Equine Encephalitis is a disease caused by a virus (the Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus).According to the CDC, only a small percentage (4-5%) of human infections with this virus actually lead to Eastern Equine Encephalitis.Thus, the vast majority of human infections lead to minor or no symptoms.
However, in severe cases of EEE, inflammation of the brain can lead to symptoms including fever, headache, vomiting, confusion, convulsions, and coma.Roughly a third of such human cases are fatal and survivors often suffer from permanent neurological complications.Individuals younger than 15 or older than 50 are at greatest risk, as well as individuals that live, work, or recreate near swampy areas. In the US, cases of EEE tend to occur in states along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast.The New England states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have seen nearly 20 human EEE cases this year.Cases can also occur in the Midwest, with a cluster of nearly a dozen reports in southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana in 2019.
3. Humans aren’t the only species impacted by Eastern Equine Encephalitis.In fact, EEE is primarily a bird disease.For example, many passerine birds (a group that includes our common songbirds such as robins and starlings) can readily become infected with the EEE virus. Some states even use “sentinel” birds to monitor EEE activity.If the conditions are right in a given year, populations of the ornithophilic mosquito Culiseta melanura can cause EEE to build up in a local bird population.Eventually, other mosquito species allow the disease to jump from birds to humans.Horses can also become infected with the EEE virus and because equine infections typically precede human cases by a few weeks, an uptick in horse cases can serve as a general indicator of potential risk to humans in an area.There is a vaccine available for horses to help protect them from EEE.
4. Eastern Equine Encephalitis is very rare in humans.Case numbers vary around the eastern US every year, but over the last decade the country has averaged only seven human EEE cases per year.In Wisconsin, there have only been three documented human cases of EEE between 1964 and 2018.The limited habitat of the key mosquito species and its restricted feeding behaviours help explain the rarity of human cases.Despite news reports within the last month, the EEE threat should nearly be done for the year in the Upper Midwest.Eastern Equine Encephalitis cases typically peak in late summer or early autumn, and with temperatures dipping in the region (and snow in the forecast), mosquito activity is on the decline in our area.
5. General mosquito precautions are one of the simplest ways to protect against Eastern Equine Encephalitis.Because the key mosquito species involved with EEE (Culiseta melanura) is associated with freshwater swamps, chemical insecticide treatments to such areas are often not an option for individual land owners and can pose environmental concerns.Instead, practices such as wearing long-sleeved clothing, using EPA-registered repellents (such as DEET and picaridin), avoiding areas and periods of high mosquito activity, and removing standing water on a property are some of the best precautions to take.
Update September 2020: Wisconsin has recently had two confirmed human cases this year.
“I think I’ve found a kissing bug and wanted to report it” is a surprisingly common line I get at the UW Insect Diagnostic Lab.
I’ve previously written about kissing bugs, but to quickly recap: these are blood-feeding assassin bugs found primarily in South and Central America. Kissing bugs tend to be associated with vertebrate nests outdoors but can bite humans and can also carry Trypanosoma cruzi—a parasite that causes Chagas disease. Due to this concern, I see a spike in website traffic and “reports” of suspected kissing bugs just about any time there’s national news coverage of these insects. While many kissing bug species exist, the vast majority are restricted to tropical and subtropical areas. The northernmost species—the eastern conenose kissing bug (Triatomasanguisuga)—ranges from Latin America as far north as southern Illinois.
Insects don’t care for geopolitical boundaries, but when humans shade in the entire state of Illinois on a distribution map of kissing bugs, it gives the false impression that these insects are on the tollway marching towards Wisconsin’s southern border. However, the eastern conenose kissing bug is rarely spotted in the northern parts of its range and there has never been a verified case of kissing bugs from within Wisconsin.
The regular occurrence of false reports can likely be attributed to hype in the news combined with a good ol’ case of mistaken identity. It turns out that there are a number of common insects that can resemble kissing bugs. One of these, the western conifer seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis), is regularly encountered in the upper Midwest because these insects sneak indoors in the fall just like boxelder bugs. Recently, the commonest look-alike I’ve been getting reports of is the masked hunter bug (Reduvius personatus), which can also be encountered indoors.
If you aren’t familiar with masked hunter bugs, there’s a good reason why these insects can sometimes mistaken for kissing bugs—they’re technically kissing cousins. Both kissing bugs and masked hunter bugs belong to the assassin bug family (Family Reduviidae). This is a diverse family of approximately 7,000 species worldwide and we have dozens of common species in the Midwest. The vast majority of these species (including masked hunter bugs) are really beneficial predators of other arthropods and are of little medical importance. In theory, if you picked up and mishandled one of our Midwestern assassin bugs species, it could bite—likely feeling similar to a wasp sting—although that’s about the worst it could do.
Masked hunter bugs are readily identifiable, although the nymphs (juveniles) can have you scratching your head if you haven’t encountered them before. The nymphs are often ¼” – ½” long and camouflage themselves with bits of lint and other debris—as a result, they can resemble miniature walking dust bunnies. Once you recognize this disguise, they’re easy to identify.
Adult masked hunter bugs are slender, roughly ¾” long, and entirely dark coloured. They have long, thin legs & antennae and stout beak-like mouthparts which they use to feed on insects and other arthropod prey. Several key features help distinguish masked hunter bugs from eastern conenose kissing bugs:
Masked hunter bugs are entirely dark while eastern conenose kissing bugs have red on their body
Masked hunter bugs lack the projecting “conenose” present on the head of kissing bugs
Masked hunter bugs have a bulging, “muscular” appearance of their prothorax (trapezoidal region behind the head) when viewed under magnification
Masked hunter bugs have stout beak-like mouthparts while kissing bugs have long, slender mouthparts when viewed under magnification
When it comes to kissing bugs, we simply don’t have these insects in the Upper Midwest, but we do have look-alikes. For side-by-side diagrams showing an eastern conenose kissing bug compared to common look-alikes, visit the ID Guide page on this website: insectlab.russell.wisc.edu/visual-id-guides/
Mosquito season has officially kicked off in Wisconsin, meaning the omnipresence of repellents for the foreseeable future. If mosquitoes have redeeming properties, it’s that they at least serve as food for a wide variety of animals and can even act as pollinators in some cases. When mosquitoes bite, they do so with surgical precision that would make a phlebotomist green with envy. Simply reading about mosquitoes might make you feel itchy, although on the spectrum of biting flies, things could be much more sinister…
Also very active at the moment in Wisconsin are black flies (Family Simuliidae) and our state is home to 30 species of these tiny sanguivores. Black flies—or “buffalo gnats” due to their hump-backed appearance—are deceptive creatures for their small size (~ 1/8″ long). You usually don’t notice them as much by sound like buzzing mosquitoes, but when they land to feed, these tiny flies are vicious. Rather than using needle-like mouthparts to delicately probe for blood vessel like mosquitoes, black fly mandibles resemble the jagged edge of Rambo’s survival knife which they use in a “slash-and-slurp” approach. These mouthparts slice into flesh to create a pool of blood which they then consume. If this sounds unpleasant—it is! Reactions to black fly bites can sometimes be severe, with fever and enlargement of nearby lymph nodes. In addition, their sheer numbers can take a psychological toll and can be a strong test of one’s fortitude if you must be outdoors during peak black fly season.
Of the 30 species in Wisconsin, only a handful actually bite humans. Other species are “picky eaters” with a strong preference for other animals. For example, Simulium annulus, specializes on common loons and in “bad” years the constant pestering can force adult loons to abandon their nests. Other birds, such as purple martins and bluebirds can face high rates of chick mortality when the black flies are bad. Pets, like dogs can commonly get bites and large pinkish welts on the soft skin of their belly. Dairy cows can be harassed to the extent that feeding and weight gain is greatly reduced and milk production all but ceases. In some cases, large animals including deer, cows, and horses have been killed outright by black flies.
With that said, if you’ve ever encountered an outbreak of black flies, you’d likely remember. If you haven’t bumped into black flies before, you’re perhaps in a good spot on the map. The larvae of many black fly species tend to be associated with streams and rivers, meaning that geography can play a role with outbreaks. Within the state, areas near the Wisconsin River and other large rivers and streams tend to see the most intense black fly activity. Black flies can be even worse to the north. These insects can be notoriously bad in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in June, and in Canada black flies have even been enshrined in film and a surprisingly catchy folk song.
If there’s good news about black flies, it’s that the adults are short-lived. Wisconsin tends to see a blitz of activity spanning a few weeks in late spring. When black flies are active, the best approach is to layer up with long sleeves, break out the repellents like DEET, and use a head net if needed. If you’re in an area with intense black fly activity, cutting back on outdoor activities until these insects run their course for the year may be the simplest option.
This month’s post features contributions from Dr. Bieneke Bron
As stories about measles and vaccinations circulate in the news, it’s easy to lose track of other emerging health threats. May is Lyme Disease Awareness month, and if you want to look at an emerging health threat particularly relevant to the Midwest, look no further than deer ticks and Lyme disease.
A Brief History of Deer Ticks and Lyme Disease:
The Lyme disease story is surprisingly new to Wisconsin and deer ticks are something that our grandparents didn’t have to deal with while growing up. It wasn’t until the late 1960’s that our first deer ticks were documented in northern Wisconsin. At the time, this particular tick was known from more southern locations, so the first Wisconsin reports were noted as a curiosity in the scientific literature. In actuality, this marked an early foothold of deer ticks in the region, which have spread rapidly. Fast forward 50 years and deer ticks are widely distributed around Wisconsin and surrounding states.
Tracking Ticks with Mobile Technology:
With the changing tick and tick-borne disease situation over the last 50 years, understanding the factors that influence where and when ticks are encountered is more important than ever before. Researchers at the Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease and the Northeast Regional Center for Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases have teamed up to develop The Tick App—a mobile app to help gather critical clues to better understand human exposure to ticks. The app, available in iTunes and GooglePlay, not only allows the public to contribute valuable data to tick researchers, but the app provides helpful tips on tick identification, activity, and precautions to take. During the tick season, the researchers will also identify ticks from the images submitted in the app.
As we move into peak tick season, Midwesterners should be aware of ticks and take appropriate precautions to protect themselves [Recommended reading: the ABCs of Tick Season]. Learn more about The Tick App by visiting thetickapp.org or follow on Twitter @TickAppOnTour.
*Interestingly, a 57-year old physician from Medford, Wisconsin, was diagnosed with the hallmark rash of Lyme disease (erythema migrans) in 1969 [Scrimenti 1970, Arch Derm]. Just imagine, Lyme disease being known as Medford disease…
In this post, we’re continuing to count down the University of Wisconsin Insect Diagnostic Lab’s top arthropod trends of 2018. This is the second half of a two part series; the first half can be found here.
5) White-Lined and Other Sphinx Moths:
The white-lined sphinx moth (Hyleslineata) can be a common species, so encountering one of the 3 inch long hornworm caterpillars isn’t unusual. However, these caterpillars can also be encountered in massive road-traversing hordes if the conditions are just right. From midsummer onwards, large numbers of these caterpillars were observed around the state—in some cases by the tens of thousands. If you didn’t spot any of the caterpillars themselves, you might have encountered the large adult moths with their hummingbird-like behaviour in late summer. Several other sphinx moths species also had a strong presence in 2018, such as the clearwing hummingbird moths and the tobacco and tomato hornworm caterpillars which can regularly be encountered in gardens as they munch away on tomato and pepper plants.
Sawflies, the caterpillar copycats of the insect world, are a diverse group, so they’re always present to some extent. Last year saw an unexpected abundance of two particular types in Wisconsin—the dogwood sawfly and the non-native Monostegia abdominalis, which feeds on creeping Jenny and related plants from the loosestrife group (Lysimachia species). While sawflies are plant feeders, dogwood sawflies can also damage the soft wood of a home’s siding or trim when these insects excavate small chambers to pupate in. The UW Insect Diagnostic Lab saw a distinct bump in reports of wood damage from the dogwood sawfly last year.
True armyworms (Mythimna unipuncta) can be a dynamic and sporadic pest in the Midwest. This species doesn’t survive the cold winters of our area, so adult armyworm moths must invade from the south each spring. Depending on national weather patterns, the arrival of the adult moths can vary significantly from year to year. If an early mass arrival is followed by abundant food and ideal conditions for the ensuing caterpillars, large populations can result. Once they’ve arrived, true armyworms can go through 2-3 generations in the state and this second generation of caterpillars made an alarming appearance in mid-to-late July. Under the conditions last summer, massive hordes of these caterpillars decimated crop fields before marching across roads by the tens or hundreds of thousands to look for their next meal. In some cases, that next meal included turfgrass, meaning that some Wisconsinites came home from work to biblical hordes of caterpillars and half-eaten lawns in late July.
2) Monarch Butterflies:
Much to the delight of fans and conservationists, the iconic monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) appeared to have a banner year in the Midwest in 2018. Reports and observations of high numbers of monarchs poured into the Insect Diagnostic Lab during the summer months. As comforting as these reports were, the butterflies still faced a perilous 2,000 mile journey to reach their overwintering grounds in Mexico. The most consistent measurement of the eastern monarch population comes from estimating the area occupied by the densely-packed overwintering butterflies. In late January the latest count was released with encouraging news—the eastern monarch population is up 144% over last year and is estimated to be the largest in over a decade. In contrast, the western monarch population overwinters in southern California and has recently dipped to alarmingly low numbers. Regardless of the winter assessments, monarchs face tough challenges and Wisconsinites are encouraged to help conserve this iconic species. The Wisconsin Monarch Collaborative recently launched a website with resources for those wishing to join the effort.
1) Floodwater Mosquitoes:
Mosquitoes snagged the top spot on 2018’s list for good reason. The upper Great Lakes region is home to over 60 different mosquito species, but one subset—the “floodwater” mosquitoes—drove the storyline last year and impacted outdoor activities through much of the spring and summer months. Mosquitoes in this group, such as the inland floodwater mosquito (Aedes vexans), flourish when heavy rains come. Last year’s mosquito season kicked off in force with a batch of pesky and persistent floodwater mosquitoes just before Memorial Day weekend. Mosquito monitoring traps in southern Wisconsin captured record numbers of mosquitoes shortly thereafter. Later in the year, the Midwest experienced an unprecedented series of severe rainstorms, setting the stage for an encore performance of these mosquitoes. It was this second explosion of mosquitoes that caught the attention of anyone trying to enjoy the outdoors in late summer—a time of the year when mosquitoes are typically winding down in the state.