Press-Republican

FYI...

March 7, 2014

Polar vortex may prove to be a powerful pesticide

— This winter is a real killer.

The deep freeze, with arctic blasts from the polar vortex, has put invasive insects on ice in dozens of states. That includes the emerald ash borer, a pretty bug that does ugly things to ecosystems it invades.

Up to 80 percent of the ash borers died when January temperatures dipped below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in St. Paul, Minn., according to an estimate by U.S. Forest Service biologists, who have been conducting studies on the impact of cold weather on the bugs for the past three years.

Their estimates were affirmed when state researchers found that nearly 70 percent of ash borers collected from infected trees in the Twin Cities area last month were frozen stiff - a good thing for ash trees that adorn communities and provide smooth, durable wood used for flooring, bowling alleys, church pews, baseball bats and electric guitars.

Across the country, other destructive pests are dropping dead, including the hemlock woolly adelgid, which preys on Christmas trees in the Appalachian Mountains; the kernel-munching corn earworm, found in nearly every state; the citrus-destroying cottony cushion scale that migrated to Maryland from Florida; and the gypsy moth, which chomps on 80 species of trees and is spreading from the Northeast to the Midwest.

The bugs found their way to the United States from all over the world and thrived in the relatively warm winters of recent years. At least two of the pests mounted great migrations from the Deep South to Virginia and Maryland.

For now, at least, the freeze has stopped them in their tracks. Researchers in the Appalachians of West Virginia and Maryland found hemlock adelgids whose little, straw-like mouths were stuck to the pine needles from which they suck nectar.

"If you poke them with a stick, they'll normally move their little microscopic legs," said Patrick Tobin, a research entomologist for the Forest Service in Morgantown, W.Va. But not this winter.

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