NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

1995: New Mexico's "Year of the Bug"

"Insects affected almost every citizen this year," said Mike English, a Las Cruces-based entomologist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

Homeowners were bugged by more bugs, including Africanized honey bees and false chinch bugs. Backyard gardeners and commercial growers alike lost their tomatoes and chile to curly top, a disease spread by insects. Cotton and pecan growers saw serious new pests emerge.

Livestock producers and the state fair were hamstrung by an outbreak of vesicular stomatitis, another disease insects are thought to carry.

Even tourists looking for fall foliage were disappointed because of insect damage to trees.

New Mexicans can blame the "Year of the Bug" on weather patterns, English said. "Mother Nature has played some pretty tough tricks on us," he said. "Over the last five years, we've had really mild winters, with higher than usual temperatures, no severely cold weather, and a little more rainfall than usual."

Those conditions allowed insect populations to build and created a thriving supply of weeds where bugs could live, he said.

In retrospect, English can trace 1995 through his bug- related phone calls. It all started with questions from homeowners about false chinch bugs. "As the winter weeds began to dry up, we had tremendous amounts of small insects crawling into homes, just driving folks crazy," he recalled. "My phone rang off the hook."

Soon, insect problems surfaced in field crops as well. The pink bollworm, a damaging cotton pest, began showing up in the Mesilla Valley. Then the news got worse: confirmed reports of the boll weevil, an insect known for devastating cotton production.

Grower Dosi Alvarez of La Union assessed the boll weevil threat succinctly. "If the boll weevil were to establish itself in this valley, that would be the end of cotton here."

The cool spring weather allowed a buildup of a tiny insect called the beet leafhopper, which spreads curly top virus, a disease noted for the wide range of plants it can infect, including chile, squash, pumpkins and tomatoes.

"Gardeners had a nightmare with it," English said. "I personally put out 18 tomato plants and ended up with four because of curly top."

Not even the nation's third largest pecan crop was spared.

The pecan nut case bearer showed up in insect monitoring traps checked by the Dofia Ana County Extension office, much to the chagrin of growers. If they have to spray for the case bearer, it jeopardizes successful programs that use beneficial insects to control other pests.

Summer brought an outbreak of vesicular stomatitis, a contagious livestock disease that causes blister-like lesions. Scientists believe the disease is spread by insects and through contact with infected animals. Restrictions on livestock movement hampered producers and put a damper on livestock shows at the New Mexico State Fair.

Soon, gray, leafless aspens on the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Santa Fe marked the return of Western forest caterpillar. Instead of leaves, trees held dirty, white silk tents full of caterpillars.

Late October marked the first serious stinging incident involving Africanized honey bees. A woman was treated for anaphylactic shock and four puppies died after being stung repeatedly at her home near Las Cruces.

Throughout the season, Eddy County was a hotspot for a litany of insect problems, said Woods Houghton, Extension agent in the Carlsbad area.

An alfalfa aphid flare-up was followed by thrips and pink bollworm in cotton. In the meantime, the beet armyworm marched through a smorgasbord of crops, leaving only stalks in its wake.

Grasshopper numbers built up on rangeland, too. As in Dofia Ana County, isolated boll weevil infestations were cause for concern.

Houghton's year-end damage estimates were grim: cotton yields 20 percent below normal, alfalfa down 15 percent, chile harvests of a thousand pounds less per acre and a drop in pecan quality.

"This is the only year when farmers with weedy fields probably fared better," Houghton said. "It gave the insects somewhere else to go."

The best thing that could happen for buggy New Mexico would be a severely cold winter. Not content to rely on the fickle weather, scientists and growers are banding together to keep the bugs at bay.

Extension scientists are advocating cultural controls, such as destroying stalks and plowing down crop residue. To combat the bollworm, farmers sprayed infested areas in Dofia Ana and Eddy counties. Growers took the lead in assessing a fee per bale of cotton to fund the control programs.

In the New Year, farmers are hoping for a little help from the weather to prevent 1996 from becoming a sequel to the "Year of the Bug."