University City

Insect forecast: ‘Typical’ year will mean plenty for everyone

We all knew they were coming. We just didn’t expect them so soon.

Insects have arrived this spring before many of us were prepared to see them.

We can’t blame it entirely on the mild winter, say the experts, but it does have to take some of the blame. Mild winters don’t necessarily mean more bugs, but warmer winters do mean more time with insects because they’re here sooner.

“They’re very active right now because the flowers are out as well,” said entomologist Dawn Flynn, curator of the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, and a frequent consultant for botanists at UNC Charlotte. “As long as the flowers are out and they can get pollen, they can feed.”

It may be wise to stock up on the repellants, Benadryl, and fly swatters now.

But don’t worry, the mild winter doesn’t mean the insect population will fly to unbearable heights anytime soon. Mother Nature has a way of balancing out.

“The insects we consider pests may be surviving better because of this mild winter, but so are their predators,” said Dr. Stanley Schneider, an animal behaviorist in UNCC’s biology department. “By the time we get into summer, we’re probably going to have as many insects as we always do.”

Just your average 10 quintillion bugs, according to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution, who have estimated the number of insects alive at any time in the world. In case you’re wondering, a quintillion has 18 zeroes.

That means for every human on the planet, there are 200 million insects. The 2010 U.S. Census puts Mecklenburg County’s human population at 919,628. Multiply that by 200 million and you’ll know how many crawling, flying, buzzing creatures linger nearby.

(If you need something to take the sting out of that volume of insects, consider that there won’t be nearly that many politicians swarming around Charlotte in the coming months, although they may appear just as pesky.)

The only chance of squashing the insect population would come in the form of a cold snap blustering through our region.

“Periods where you have these rapid cycles of freezing and thawing, that can take a toll on insect populations because it can be difficult for them to change fast enough to keep up with that environment,” said Schneider.

No one really sees that happening, though.

Truthfully, the insects never went anywhere. From soil samples dug 5 inches into the North Carolina ground, scientists estimated 124 million animals thrive per acre. Of those, 90 million were mites, 28 million were springtails, and 4.5 million were other bugs.

And unlike humans, insects have existed on Earth for more than a hundred million years.

We may not be the party hosts we thought, but instead the guests who show up late, then never seem to leave. Insects wake up from their over-winter slumber to find we’re still lounging around, eating their food and clipping their flowers for our vases.

And since they were here first, they’ve proven they probably have the staying power to outlast us.

“They’ve adapted,” said Schneider. “They’ve evolved over millennia.”