Q: Is it my imagination, or did the very wet spring cause a bigger-than-normal infestation of mosquitoes, flies, fruit flies, and other annoying insects? My house and yard are filled with buzzing and biting creatures—even more than usual. Is there any way to get some relief from this annoying arthropod invasion—especially those fruit flies?
Sandy Garcia, San Antonio
A: Mosquitoes, flies, fruit flies, fire ants, bees, wasps, yellow jackets, roaches, fleas, ticks, spiders, chiggers, scorpions, centipedes, millipedes, crickets, gnats, click beetles, and cicadas. And mosquito eaters, and june bugs, and kissing bugs, and bedbugs, and stink bugs and chinch bugs. And ladybugs. And doodlebugs. Oh, and lighting bugs. And so on and so on and so on. Welcome to Texas, where the bugs are a lot more dependably abundant than the rain.
But when rains are abundant, as they were across much of the state this past spring and early summer, one aftereffect can indeed be an uptick (rim shot) in the overall bugginess of our rain-moistened environs. It’s not your imagination, Ms. Garcia. The Texanist, whose humble domicile sits in Austin, has himself recently noticed around his abode thick clouds of hangry mosquitoes, as well as the ever-present house flies, which seem to have doubled or maybe even tripled their numbers this year. In May the Texanist was also besieged by an army of box-elder bugs, little red ones and bigger black and red ones, which congregated in large groups on the exterior walls of his home.
Yet though the anecdotal evidence witnessed firsthand by you and the Texanist seems clear enough to draw a conclusion that excessive April showers not only bring May flowers but also lots of creeping and crawling and buzzing pancrustacean hexapod invertebrates, the Texanist decided to reach out to an actual expert for a more definitive answer to your query.
The expert he turned to is one Wizzie Brown, a board-certified entomologist and longtime extension program specialist with Texas A&M’s Texas AgriLife Extension Service. Ms. Brown, whose specialty is integrated pest management, first came to the Texanist’s attention a couple of summers ago, when he issued a Green Alert (lawn-keeping emergency) on Twitter, seeking assistance with the positive identification of chinch bugs in his yard. Though her response came too late to salvage the large, rapidly desiccating swaths of the Texanist’s once verdant lawn, he appreciated the help and was happy to seek her out once again.
Brown told the Texanist that, in fact, rain will often prompt certain insects to emerge in large numbers for mating. “Excessive rain can also allow more types of mosquitoes to emerge,” such as floodwater mosquitoes, which lay eggs that can sit in soil for as long as three years until heavy rains prompt them to hatch, she said. “Rain can also cause certain arthropods, like pill bugs [note: The Texanist has always called them doodlebugs, but whatever; she’s the expert] and millipedes to wander into our homes as they try to escape water-saturated soil. And fire ants build larger mounds to try to escape waterlogged soil.”
Because the Texanist was curious, he inquired about the converse—are there fewer bugs during times of droughtiness? Brown says there may be less insect “activity” during dry times, but there are still usually plenty of bugs around. This is Texas, after all. Some arthropods are encountered even more frequently during hotter and drier times, such as those aforementioned dad-blamed chinch bugs rooting around in the turfgrasses of unsuspecting and undeserving Texans.
As to whether more or fewer bugs are, generally speaking, a good thing, Brown figures that it depends on how a person feels about insects, which insects we’re talking about, and what those insects are up to. “If I have a lot of mosquitoes or fire ants in my yard, I wouldn’t be thrilled. But if I had a lot of pollinators like native bees, butterflies, moths, etc., then it would be great. Insects can be beneficial or detrimental based upon where they are located and/or what they are doing, so you have to take it on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “Example: ladybugs in my yard eating aphids are great, but when they move into my house to overwinter, they become pests. I can also flip that and say that when termites feed on my house they are a pest, but if they are breaking down a tree that fell in the forest to more usable nutrients, then they are beneficial decomposers.” The Texanist nodded in agreement while noting that Brown was completely mum on any possible upside to chinch bugs. (The Texanist’s own well-pondered opinion on the matter: there isn’t one!)
Though the Texanist has no doubt that all of this scientific background is of at least some interest to you, Ms. Garcia, he’s well aware that you’ve really come looking for what we here in the fourth estate refer to as the “service” aspect of your question: What in the name of Drosophila melanogaster can be done about those pesky fruit flies? As it happens, the ever-helpful Brown had a few remedial suggestions. “The best way to control fruit flies—actually the only way to really get rid of them—is to locate what the larvae are feeding on and dispose of it.” One source of fruit fly infestation is, you may not be surprised to learn, fruit. Brown says you should try to avoid purchasing overly ripened fruit, and to store ripe fruit in the refrigerator. Fruit that needs to stay at room temperature in order to ripen should be placed in a paper bag that is closed with a clip.
If you’re already suffering through an infestation, as the Texanist did recently, you can also kill adults with a flyswatter or capture them using a purchased or homemade trap. The DIY method of fruit fly trappery is as easy as fruit fly–speckled pie. Simply place a small paper funnel (a portion of rolled-up notebook paper will do) into a jar that is baited with a few ounces of cider vinegar and place the jar trap(s) wherever fruit flies are evident. This method, which is endorsed by both the Texanist and Wizzie Brown, has the added benefit of leaving the fruit(flies) of your efforts visibly floating belly up by the dozens—right there in the midst of your otherwise sanitary and unrepulsive food storage and preparation area.
Thanks for the letter and bug appetit!
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.