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Swarms of aphids bugging residents along Wasatch Front

Published: Monday, Oct. 1 2012 5:39 p.m. MDT

Woolly aphids dot a leaf in the West Valley yard of Steve Krauel. Complaints about the bugs have been pouring in.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

CENTERVILLE — In the short time it took Colleen Morrell to walk from her car to the doors of a church meetinghouse Sunday, she was inundated with small, green, gnat-like insects.

Morrell wasn't the only one. Her neighbors, too, were picking bugs out of their hair and off their clothing for the entirety of church services, she said.

"I literally had to go into the women's room, take off my clothes and shake them," Morrell said. "I was covered from my shoes to the top of my head."

Mosquito abatement officials say a long, dry summer and a warm fall have contributed to higher-than-usual numbers of the insects, which comprise several species of aphids.

And until temperatures decline, they'll continue to bug residents along the Wasatch Front, officials said.

Morrell, a Centerville resident for 27 years, said it's common to see a few bugs hovering over plants or someone's head each fall. But the past few days, Sunday in particularly, the swarms of insects have looked like a "huge wave," she said.

"It's ridiculous," Morrell said. "It was really unlike anything I've ever seen in my life."

Gary Hatch, manager of Davis County Mosquito Abatement, said the aphids are a perennial staple in Utah. They typically go into a heavy reproduction cycle in the fall to lay eggs before winter, Hatch said.

As long as temperatures stay up, he said, there's nothing to stop the insects' mass reproduction cycle.

"We need a really good chill down to stop this process," Hatch said. "Two years ago was the worst I'd ever seen, and this is way beyond that."

KSL meteorologist Grant Weyman said temperatures the past two weeks have been 5 degrees to 10 degrees warmer than yearly averages.

"Most of our days since mid-September have been in the mid-80s," Weyman said. "It's been fairly dry and warm."

Davis County has received the brunt of the aphid problem this year, something state entomologist Clint Burfitt said is typical of aphids.

Utah has seen large outbreaks of the insects over the past three years," Burfitt said, but the heaviest concentrations have moved to different parts of the state each fall.

"They're definitely a nuisance, but they tend to be in a different area each year," he said. "It's spotty, but where they are at, people are noticing them."

Salt Lake Mosquito Abatement District manager Sam Dickson said West Valley City and Sandy have been affected by the aphids, but so far he hasn't gotten any calls from Salt Lake City.

"I know driving home I get a dozen or so (aphids) on my windshield," Dickson said.

In Weber County, abatement manager Bruce Bennett said his office is getting between two and four calls a day about the aphids, something he never remembers happening in the past.

Bennett said the aphids typically are found in the western portions of the county but this year have popped up in more urban areas, particularly South Ogden and Riverdale.

Unlike mosquitoes, the aphids do not carry diseases and don't pose a threat to communities beyond being an unpleasant nuisance, he said.

"They're just kind of pesky little suckers," Bennett said. "These are the most I've ever seen."

The aphids, like many other insect boons the state has seen in past years, is just another one of nature's cycles that should run its course, he said.

If Utah sees another light to moderate winter, Hatch said the fall swarms could mean problems for next year's growing season. The aphids may pose no danger to humans, but they feed on the juices in plants and can damage crops, he said. 

"All these aphids that are flying are going to be laying eggs," Hatch said. "If we have another winter like last year, the hatch of aphids could be huge."

Burfitt said he's confident the upcoming winter will be sufficient to knock out most of the eggs.

Aphids are particularly difficult to control because of their rapid reproduction cycles, he said. But even with this fall's large numbers, Burfitt said he doesn't believe there's any cause for alarm in terms of impact on the state's crops.

"We tend to get pretty cold here throughout the winter," he said. "Those eggs will likely die if we get a hard freeze."

Either way, when spring comes around, homeowners should be vigilant about checking and spraying their plants, Hatch said. For the time being, insect sprays available at home and garden stores are effective, he said, though it would take coordination between neighbors to achieve a noticeable impact.

"It can be helpful if you and your neighbors … spray your yards," Hatch said. "If you're the only one in the neighborhood that sprays, the next day they're going to be airborne again."

Because the aphids are at their peak between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., not after sunset like mosquitoes and other pests, there's little that mosquito abatement workers can do to curb the swarms, he said.

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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