Mild winter means early onset of bugs, allergies


LITTLE ROCK — The mild winter and early Spring put Arkansans to sneezing, wheezing and spraying bugs sooner this year.

The state is in for a longer mosquito season and an intense allergy season because of the warmer and wetter winter, health officials say.

Kelly Loftin, an extension entomologist at the University of Arkansas, said he is already receiving reports of mosquitoes, fleas and gnats, which normally don’t begin appearing until April.

“It sounds like it might be a good year for insects,” Loftin said last week as temperatures rose into the 80’s, nearly 20 degrees above normal for this time of year.

The mild winter, coupled with the heavy rains, also has jump-started the allergy season, said Dr. Philip Hudson, a family medicine physician at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Hudson noted that rain in the fall and winter can lead to higher than usual pollen counts.

“Trees are a big problem right now,” he said.

Meteorologist Matthew Clay with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock said this winter has been the fourth warmest on record and rainfall was about two inches above normal between Dec. 1 and the end of February. ”It was a very warm winter for Arkansas,” he said, adding that the average high in December, January and February was 57.4 degrees, nearly 5 degrees above normal. The average low was 36.9 degrees, 3.8 degrees above the average low.

The state also had an inch less snow than normal and about 14 inches of rain during the winter, two inches above normal and nearly double the amount of rain last winter.

Loftin said mosquitoes are already being reported in Stuttgart and elsewhere across the state, as well as ticks, black flies, gnats and fleas.

“The mosquitoes are generally pretty bad in May and June, so we’re seeing a few now about a month early,” he said.

The black flies, he said, generally begin appearing later in the Spring, but they are emerging early because they prefer fast-moving running water and that is plentiful across the state because of the heavy rains, he said.

“Keep in the back of your mind that just because they’ve emerged earlier does not necessarily mean they are going to be worse, and that is good,” Loftin said.

Ed Barham, spokesman for the state Department of Health, urged people to use insect repellent when heading out doors to avoid mosquitoes, which can transmit West Nile disease. He also recommended staying indoors at dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are active, and wearing protective clothing with long sleeves and long pants when outdoors.

Barham said the number of reported cases of the mosquito-borne virus have dropped over the past few years in the state, but infection is still a concern.

“It’s not quite the health threat that it was when it first emerged in 1998,” he said.

Most people infected with West Nile just suffer from flu-like symptoms. Less than 1 percent of people bitten by an infected mosquito develop severe illness, and most of them are elderly or people with low immune systems.

“We just don’t have people getting as seriously ill,” Barham said.

To reduce the chance of mosquito bites, Barham suggested taking measures to stop the insects from breeding, including getting rid of any standing water where possible. Cans, plastic containers and ceramic pots that collect rainwater can be places where mosquitoes breed.

“Remember, those mosquitoes can breed in as little as a tea spoon of water,” he said.