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Slugs and bugs

Outdoor pests go hogwild after wet and mild winter

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2001

Is your lettuce lifeless? If so, it could be yet another victim of our mild winter, which produced a bumper crop of bugs, according to our local Extension Agent Jim Douglas.

"This year we've got every insect I've ever seen," he said. "We've seen critters we don't even know what they are!"

As an employee of the Cooperative Extension Service, which brings the practical applications of scientific research to the public, Douglas is the point man for the desperate: Gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts alike who are baffled by bugs. And he has had plenty of business in 2001.

"This year and even the last three years we've had mild winters," said Douglas. "We didn't have a lot of frost-thaw [cycles]. I don't think it froze deep enough to kill."

In a normal year, Juneau's periodic freezing and warming during the winter would kill more pest insects and their eggs. However, according to Douglas, the "frost-thaw" cycle seemed to get stuck on "thaw" last winter. This caused an unusually large number of bugs and their offspring to survive.

"Most insects procreate at a much higher rate than nature can handle," Douglas said. So in those years when natural conditions are skewed in their favor, additional insects come out in force.

Fishermen like their flies at the end of their lines, not on the back of their necks, and locals have confirmed Douglas' assertion that abnormally large swarms of biting insects seem to be awaiting them on the water.

"I think they are really bad," said Gail O'Dell, who has fished in Juneau for 19 summers. "I left my share of DNA out at South Bridget Cove this weekend."

Many gardeners also seem to be suffering from more insects than normal.

"This is probably the worst year I've seen," said Douglas.

One troubling aspect of this warm weather phenomenon is that some of the flourishing pests are not locals. Among the normal casualties of winter chill are the numerous insects accidentally imported from nurseries and tree farms down south. These new bugs range from mites to worms to new varieties of aphid, and they attack everything from currant bushes to lilacs and lettuce.

"The stars are lined up in favor of the insects this year," Douglas said.

To prevent refugee insects from making themselves at home, he recommends that gardeners take precautions like visually inspecting new plants and turning the soil every fall and spring.

As far as locals go, slugs in particular have flourished. Whether it's spotted and 4 inches long or just a little fluorescent-orange slimer, a slug can wreak havoc in a garden, and their reputation for strawberry patch devastation is legendary.

"The slugs are really out. There's no doubt that we probably got very little kill on any of the slugs this year," Douglas said. He describes himself as a bad gardener because he has given up fighting the slug horde.

These days he just plants enough to share with them and washes off his home-grown produce with salt water before eating it.

"To the best of my knowledge, I've never eaten a slug."

His solution for the more aggressive gardener is the "quick-draw method": a 20% to 30% ammonia and water mixture in a spray bottle to help settle the score. The ammonia is even good for soil, as it contains the same type of nitrogen that plants utilize. Just make sure not to have slug shoot-outs on hot, sunny days ammonia can burn leaves if applied under those conditions.

Unfortunately for sports people, there is not much to be done about the five varieties of biting insect found in Juneau. Only one, the mosquito, can be easily managed, as they need standing water to lay their eggs. Eliminating stagnant pools from yards can make a difference; unfortunately, Juneau's moist, temperate climate makes ideal "skeeter" habitat.

For everything else, there is bug dope, but even that has its drawbacks. A high incidence of allergies to DEET, the active ingredient in many brands, has led the United States Army to move from using pure DEET to a solution of less than 30%, said Douglas.

"The wise use of DEET," he cautioned, avoids "the Alaskan mystique: (coating) yourself with bug juice."

Rather than directly applying "bug juice" to people's skin, Douglas suggests spraying it on clothing before getting dressed. Any exposed skin should be treated by pouring the liquid onto palms and then rubbing it in.

The reasoning behind this is that insect repellent is just that: It smells bad to bugs, so they avoid it. Since it does not kill bugs, more is not necessarily better.

People have reported to Douglas that eating certain foods, or avoiding others, has made them unattractive to bloodsuckers; some avoid wearing bright colors trying to stay off the menu. For our Extension Agent, however, there is no relief.

"Whatever it is, if I'm outside, they flock to me."

Mary McRae Miller is a freelance writer. She can be reached at m3@alaska.com.



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