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Groundhog predicts more winter; I predict mosquitoes

Groundhog Club handler Ron Ploucha holds Punxsutawney Phil,

Groundhog Club handler Ron Ploucha holds Punxsutawney Phil, the weather prognosticating groundhog, during the 126th celebration of Groundhog Day on Gobbler's Knob in Punxsutawney, Pa. (Feb. 2, 2012) Credit: AP

It's hard to believe that just a year ago, Malverne's Groundhog Day was canceled due to a ridiculous amount of snow, and now here we are in February without jackets.

Just a few minutes ago, the country's most famous rodent, Punxsutawney Phil, was summoned from his burrow -- OK, was dragged from his burrow -- in Gobbler's Knob, Pa., before a crowd of  thousands of revelers, saw his proverbial shadow and declared there will be six more weeks of winter. Apparently, Phil has been nipping at the hooch -- it already feels like spring.

For about a month now, I've been telling anyone who'll listen that, regardless of whether we're in for an early spring or not -- we're probably in for a lot of mosquitoes this summer, and I fear a notable West Nile season. I hope not, but warm winters usually result in buggy summers.

We're now officially at the halfway point of winter, and Wednesday's weather in the low 60s, although really, really nice, is a bit concerning. As the warm and mostly snowless "winter that wasn't" winds down, deer populations are swelling, skunks are mating, and ticks and mosquitoes are taking advantage. Add that to the shifts in planting zones I reported on last week and a decreased threat of flooding, and we may feel the consequences of the current mild weather for quite some time.

Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, a professor of entomology and a specialist with the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program, backs me up. “If the winter of 2011-12 continues in the mild pattern that most of the U.S. has seen, I think 2012 will be a very buggy year," she said. Apparently, my frequently used term "buggy" is part of official entomological vocabulary. And you were mocking me.

You see, harsh winters -- heck, even regular winters -- kill off a good portion of the insect population. But this year, that hasn't been the case. “This year, lots and lots of hungry ticks will emerge even on warm winter days," Gangloff-Kaufmann said. "I anticipate the mosquito problems we normally see to be much more intense and begin earlier than usual if the weather continues to be mild. Even the fleas have had a boost so far this winter and many people are complaining about flea problems right now, in the middle of winter,” she added.

And if you live in a wooded area or on the eastern portion of the Island, you're in for another treat: “A mild winter will mean bigger deer populations in the spring because the deer have more to eat with less snow cover and more vegetation exposed for them to feed on all winter," according to David W. Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the chair of the Climate Change Focus Group in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.

"It also will benefit some insect pests and invasive weeds like kudzu that normally are killed back during winter because of severe cold," he said, adding, “On the positive side, if you are a farmer or gardener experimenting with crops or ornamentals that sometimes can't survive a severe winter, this will be a good year for you.”

OK, there's that.

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