Entomologist tracks the year in Alaska bugs

“Bumblebee @ wisteria lane” (Creative commons photo by Miroslav Fikar)

Bugs of various shapes and sizes are part of life in Alaska, and it can be easy for them to escape notice.

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Anecdotally, this year seems light on one of Alaska’s most prolific insects, the mosquito. Despite the fact that Alaska is home to nearly forty species of the insect, there just don’t seem to be as many around as in some years. Derek Sikes is an Associate Professor of Entomology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Insect Curator at the Museum of the North. He said populations of various types of bugs can vary widely from year to year.

“The population cycles of some insects are really dramatic in Alaska,” Sikes said. “We sometimes get years with very little of seeing certain species, then huge outbreaks.”

While the specific causes for each boom or bust of bugs aren’t often known, Sikes said there are some general rules.

“When it’s a wet spring and lots of rain during the summer, you expect to have a lot more mosquitoes because they’re aquatic,” Sikes said. They need standing water for their larvae to develop. Conversely, a dry summer is usually very good for yellow jackets—a dry spring, in particular.”

Sikes said this year is a little odd since both mosquito and yellow jacket populations seem to be low.

One type of insect that does not seem to have population issues is Alaska’s 20-plus native species of bumblebees. Sikes said that sets Alaska apart from much of the Lower 48.

“Research that the museum was involved with, that was an international collaborative effort to look at bee populations over a hundred year time period in North America and Europe, found that bumblebees are moving northward on the southern parts of their range, but they’re not moving northward on the northern parts of their range,” Sikes said. “So, their range is just shrinking.”

In particular, one species of bumblebee being considered for endangered species status in the Lower 48 seems to be doing fine here, according to Sikes.

“The western bumblebee does occur in Alaska, and it seems to be doing fine here, whereas it’s practically nonexistent in the Lower 48, where it used to be more abundant.”

American Dog Tick – Dermancentor variabilis, Merrimac Farm Wildlife Management Area, Aden, Virginia” (Creative Commons image by Judy Gallagher)

Sikes said while current numbers seem steady UAF plans to continue monitoring the western bumblebee.

An abundance of pollinators like bumblebees is generally viewed a good thing. One type of bug whose increased presence is more concerning is ticks. Sikes said Alaska is home to seven native tick species, though most people are unlikely to encounter them.

“We’ve always had ticks,” Sikes said. “They’ve been on the snowshoe hairs, and on the seabirds and some other wildlife, but those native ticks almost never interact with people and our pets.”

That’s because the native ticks are host-specific, meaning they only feed on a single type of animal. The potential problem is with ticks not native to Alaska that can and do feed on dogs and humans. Sikes said recent research has shown that there are American dog ticks present in Alaska. While that’s not unusual for animals who have been outside of the state, he says it’s concerning that some animals who have not left the area have come up with the invasive ticks.

“What that means is we have evidence of ticks on dogs that have no travel history, meaning these ticks got onto the dog from Alaskan vegetation,” Sikes said. “They were probably breeding in Alaska and are establishing.”

Sikes advises that anyone traveling outside of Alaska with pets take precautions to prevent bringing ticks back home. In addition, he said it may become necessary in the future for Alaskan pet owners to take preventative measures for the parasites even for pets who will never leave the state.

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