Warm, moist winter to spur population of mosquitoes

Samuel Liebl

The unseasonably warm spring weather may spawn larger than normal insect populations, surprising visitors to South By Southwest next week and alerting Austinites to the changing climate.

After a historic drought last year and a mild and wet winter and spring, Austin can expect resurgent mosquito populations, said John Abbott, a senior lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences.

“People are talking about what wonderful May-like weather we were having in February,” Abbott said. “The thing is — it’s not May.”

While the hot, dry weather last year kept the number of mosquitoes down, it also shrunk the population of predators that help to keep the pests under control, Abbott said.

“If you have a warm spring like we do right now, dragonflies can emerge early, too,” he said. “The problem is that last year was so dry that their population was knocked back a bit. Mosquitoes, with their shorter life spans, can rebound much quicker and get ahead of predators like dragonflies.”

Despite the unusual conditions, Abbott said he has not seen any mosquitoes yet this year. He said he has seen plenty of crane flies, however, which are often called ‘mosquito hawks.’ He said visitors to Austin will likely mistake the large insects for Texas-size mosquitoes.

“We are having a big outbreak of crane flies,” Abbott said. “They don’t eat mosquitoes. They’re a completely different family and they do not carry diseases. Folks coming in next week [for South By Southwest] do not have to be alarmed.”

Although mosquitoes have not yet been a problem, Danny Dodd, a local pest control technician, said festivalgoers should keep their bug spray handy.

“You need to wear some kind of repellent,” he said. “They’re going to be pretty bad here, especially with all the rain that we’re getting. But it depends on how warm it gets.”

In the long-term, Abbott said Austinites should be concerned with the changing climate and the ensuing northward spread of insect-born diseases.

“It wasn’t long ago that we had the first confirmed case of dengue fever being contracted in the Rio Grande Valley,” he said. “That [disease] is going to become more prevalent as mosquitoes move farther north. Because the climate allows them, they’ll bring diseases with them.”

Business freshman Alexander Sands said he does not worry about the abnormal weather, the prospect of more mosquitoes or the potential spread of insect-borne disease.

“Texas always has strange weather,” he said. “I’m from Conroe, and compared to there, the number of mosquitoes [in Austin] is very small. I doubt that West Nile would spread to Austin, and I find it unlikely that there would be a serious epidemic.”