Cincy Science: Despite the long, cold winter the bugs of summer are alive and well in the Tri-State

CINCINNATI - Ever ask, "What is that?" Or, "Why is that?" In our "Cincy Science" feature, we talk with people who can answer those questions: The folks who do science in Cincinnati and the Tri-State.

After a long cold winter, we’re welcoming back a variety of two, four, six and eight-plus legged friends; in other words, insects.

While some of us may refer to them as "pests," insects play an important role in keeping the environment in balance. To get a better appreciation for our flying, crawling and slithering friends, we consulted Winton Ray, the team leader of World of the Insects at the Cincinnati Zoo

1. We all know misquotes are back, but what are some of the other bugs of summer?

We have a pretty good diversity of insects in the Tri-State area, so just about every kind of insect you can imagine. Some are more obvious due to their peskiness and things like mosquitos are probably the most talked about, but we also have all kinds of beetles, grasshoppers, bees, wasps and hornets are also prevalent in this area. So we do get about everything you would imagine in the Tri-State area.

2. Which insects are vital to the ecosystem in Cincinnati during the summer?

As an entomologist, I would tell you they’re all vital. I feel this way about all animals when you start talking about ecosystems, I don’t know a lot about my automobile, so I wouldn’t know what parts could be removed and the engine still function. I tend to think ecosystems are kind of like that in the true sense. We still poorly understand how they function and what can and what can’t be removed is a little tough. Honestly insects do so much in terms of pollination and aeration of soil and they’re predators often times controlling their own numbers or numbers of other insects. They’re decomposing waste. They’re serving a lot of functions.

3. What are some of the insects we should be cautious of in terms of disease or toxins?

I think it’s kind of the big two that I would caution people to worry about: mosquitos and ticks. I mean if you’re going to spend a lot of time outside, if you’re hiking, if you’re walking off trail, if you’re in tall grass, if you’re in the woods, you’re going to have ticks get on you.

You want to avoid having them on you for a long period of time because there are some concerns what they may or may not be spreading. And of course mosquitos are a rite of passage, not just in the Midwest but in the majority of the United States. They’re something we just need to deal with--I’m certainly not above applying a little Deet or some other products to my arms and legs because you don’t want to get bitten that much, so I always advise people to look into the sprays and the rubs and different things that can repel insects.

4. What about the spiders?

In this area we have two spiders that are the most well-known and do pose some element of danger. Although how dangerous they are is somewhat debatable. I’m talking about the black widow and the brown recluse. What happens is every person who is bitten by a spider is certain they’ve been bitten by a brown recluse or a black widow. And I’m sure in the emergency rooms in the Tri-State and even in the more outlying rural areas will tell you every summer, every time someone gets a sore or a blister on their hand, they go to the hospital or an urgent care thinking they’ve been bit by a spider and the fear is the worse. Fortunately the majority of them don’t turn out to be black widow or brown recluse bites.

Spiders are an omnipresent part of life. I read once if you’re not on the north or south pole, you’re never more than six feet from a spider. They’re very beneficial.Some people will make a habit of spraying or killing any spiders they find in their yard and I’ll tell them that spider are actually going to be preying on the things they would rather not have like mosquitos.

5. What is the summer survival guide to co-existing with insects?

Most people with a small yard are going to encounter insects. More often than not, the insects are much more afraid of people then people need to be afraid of the insects. And very, very few people are ultimately harmed by insects. They’re all beneficial. I think as much as people can do to live with insects, I think they’re going to make their lives ultimately a lot better.

Many speculated the harsh winter would scale down the insect population this summer. To find out, we sought out University of Cincinnati associate professor of biological science Josh Benoit.

1. Did the cold winter effect the insect population?

Honestly, not as much as people expected. The winter wasn’t necessarily that cold. It was cold for a week or two and it has been cold in respect to what we recently had, but you think about it, many of the insects have been here for thousands of years if not more – so they’re used to winters that are pretty cold. Most of them are tolerant and they’ll burrow under the ground or their eggs are present under debris which kind of buffers the effect of the snow. So there

may be a little bit of an effect, but at the most, they would come out a week or two later to kind of build up the annoying number.”

2. So we’re not going to see a decrease?

Possibly the opposite. In the case of some of the insects the colder winter is actually better for them. Because when you undergo dormancy, if you’re an insect, the colder it gets the less nutrient reserves that you use. So when you come out of the winter you’re actually better off.

Most insects can usually survive down below freezing because they do have antifreeze factors that operate and allow them to survive. So for some insects there has been an effect, like the Emerald Ash Borer – that’s one that’s been affected because a lot of them have died, but probably enough of them have survived, they’ll end up coming back through the summer.

Got a question or an idea for Cincy Science? Email holly.edgell@wcpo.com.

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