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Summertime is hatching insect trouble across USA

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'Herds' of bugs creep, crawl, chew, fly through several states A week before the official start of summer, prolonged drought in the West has hatched another seasonal menace: Bugs.

The mild winter and a warm, dry spring have allowed pests to emerge in even greater numbers than last year, when grasshoppers, crickets and tree-killing beetles plagued numerous states. As a result, croplands, pastures and forests are again at risk.

* Mormon crickets in Nevada, Utah and southern Idaho are more widespread than last summer, when scientists declared the worst invasion in 60 years. The wingless cousins of grasshoppers are harmless to humans. But they march in ''herds'' so vast that they can damage farms, inundate homes and cover highways.

When squished in large numbers on the pavement by traffic, the resulting slick road is a potential hazard to speeding vehicles. Idaho officials have posted ''Crickets on Highway'' warning signs on one heavily traveled route.

''You drive over them, they pop like those little bubble packs you wrap china in,'' says Elko County, Nev., businessman Jim Gregory. ''You squish the guts out of enough of those guys, it will get slick.''

* Bark beetles have killed or weakened millions of pine trees in Arizona and California. One expert calls Arizona's outbreak one of the worst in U.S. history. Millions of acres of forests will be more vulnerable to the wildfires that torched nearly 7 million acres last year.

* Infestations of grasshoppers in parts of Colorado have reached up to 360 insects per square yard. Despite a wetter spring on the Great Plains, parts of Nebraska and Kansas are bracing for large outbreaks of the insects, which devastated crops last year.

Others are suffering

The West isn't the only target of pests this summer. In Massachusetts and other eastern states, authorities are bracing for a major hatch of mosquitoes, which can spread diseases such as West Nile virus. The wet spring has created ideal breeding conditions.

Meanwhile, cicadas that hatch in 17-year cycles are coming out in parts of southwestern Virginia and West Virginia. The return of the locust-like bugs, bothersome but not hazardous, foreshadows a much bigger emergence next summer in 13 states in the Midwest and East. In 1987, untold millions came out.

But cicadas come and go by nature's clock. The West's bug woes are tied mostly to years of drought that shows little sign of easing.

The federal government's weekly ''Drought Monitor'' bulletin, released Thursday, indicates unusually hot spring temperatures are melting mountain snows much faster than normal. That could leave some streams low or dry this summer, hurting recreation and wildlife.

The report also shows drought spreading in Texas, receding from the northern Plains, and persisting in the interior West, especially in parts of Idaho and Wyoming, most of Nevada and the Four Corners states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Going on the defense

But what's bad for people can be good for bugs.

Nevada's 2003 outbreak of Mormon crickets has covered 2.5 times as much ground as last year: more than 7,800 square miles, an area the size of Massachusetts.

In Utah, the state transportation department this week dispatched truckloads of ''bait'' -- wheat bran laced with a chemical that attacks the bugs' nervous system -- to infested areas. Workers spread the bait to intercept waves of the 2-inch-long crickets. The poison is meant to stop them before they reach the road.

Still, crossings have been reported on Interstate 70 in southern Utah and Interstate 80 in northeastern Nevada. Authorities in Boise County, Idaho, and Elko County, Nev., passed disaster declarations. Large ''herds'' of crickets have been reported in Elko, Nev., on the outskirts of Boise and 15 miles north of Reno.

''We have millions marching into the city,'' says John Ellison, chairman of the Elko County Commission. The county may spread sand on some routes, the way road crews do in winter to provide traction on ice.

Despite the talk of hazards, there have been no verified reports of accidents. One often-repeated anecdote says two people in Nevada died when their car crashed on a cricket-slicked road. But the event actually happened in the 1930s.

Another tale making the rounds in Idaho is that the crickets are driving out rattlesnakes. But in Nevada, Martin Larraneta of the state agriculture department says wildlife are feasting on the insects: ''We've got the fattest lizards you've ever seen.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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