Moms

Downsides of DFW's mild winter are sprouting, swarming and sniffling

Early springlike weather and heavy rains have been a blessing and a curse for Ben Walker.

The Fort Worth farmer has a bountiful, lush crop of asparagus that was ready for selling weeks ahead of schedule, a welcome sight after the long drought.

But Walker also knows that the unusually warm winter means a dramatic increase in bugs and a crazy allergy season.

"I'm also looking at a bumper crop of peaches this year," Walker said. "I just got to keep the insects and hail off of them. The bugs can claim a good deal of peaches, but I know how to take care of them.

"The only problem is that if it keeps raining, I have to wait on spraying, and it makes it harder to control all the grass and weeds around the trees."

After a long dry spell, this winter was the sixth-wettest on record at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, totaling 12.41 inches of rainfall from December through February, nearly double the normal 7.34 inches. Before Monday's storm, 1.47 inches of rain had fallen this month.

And the winter has been mild, reaching 32 degrees or below only 14 days, about half as many freezes as normal. And while there is still time -- we've gotten freezes as late as mid-April -- we're well behind the pace, Daniel Huckaby, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

A perfect bug season

All that makes for a perfect bug season, said urban entomologist Mike Merchant.

Floodwater mosquitoes, which thrive in warm, wet conditions, are hatching after lying dormant since last summer, said Merchant, of the Texas AgriLife Extension Services.

"There's really not a whole lot any individual can do about floodwater mosquitoes besides wear repellent and make sure there's no standing water around," he said. "The kind of mosquitoes around now are a nuisance but not a major health threat as they aren't the kind that carry encephalitis or West Nile. However, they are the kind that can cause heartworms in dogs, so people who are pet owners should keep that in mind that they have to take precautions."

Merchant said crane flies, which live in moist ground, seem to be more abundant this spring. He also warned homeowners to be aware of termites, fleas and fire ants.

"You have to start early in treating [fleas] at the first sign," Merchant said. "If you're not paying attention, they can get out of hand quick and be very difficult to deal with later."

Landscapers warned that webworms, like all insects, will be unusually active this year because cold weather did not kill them off. And gardeners are noticing other critters, including slugs, snails and grub worms, during the wet weather.

"If there are grubs, toss them in the yard for the birds," Merchant said. "There is no need to control or worry about them."

Early allergens

In another hit from Mother Nature, trees have leafed out early, and they are often the worst culprits when it comes to allergens, said longtime landscaper Joe Peterson of Fort Worth.

"Cedar's up, and so is oak," Peterson said. "It's bad, because all the trees are already starting to bud and they're producing pollen right now."

On Friday, Fort Worth was in a four-way tie for first place in Pollen.com's ranking of the nation's worst cities for respiratory allergies, scoring 11.4 out of 12. Today's forecasted score is a low 2.4, but it could rise back to 9.7 by Thursday.

Fort Worth allergist Dr. Mudita Shah said it's hard to say whether this year is really any worse than normal.

"We are historically ranked at the top in the nation," Shah said. "This is a temperate area that doesn't get too cold so you have cedar in the winter carrying the pollen, and then spring allergies are severe. It's hard to quantify, but I know people are suffering."

If all that isn't irksome enough, take a look at the dandelions, henbit, oxalis and spurge spreading across lawns.

Though many homeowners might disagree, landscapers say there really aren't more weeds than usual this spring. They've just arrived ahead of schedule.

"They are about a month ahead of time, due to the lack of cold weather," Peterson said. "The rain was a huge contributor in germinating the seeds at the same time as the warm weather arrived. Nothing froze off or died off."

Now the variable is temperature, he said. If it is mild for a longer time, spring broadleaf weeds will hang around longer into the season.

"This may be a worse year for weeds because yards have been stressed and the grass is not as healthy to hold the weeds down," he said. "It's not the drought that causes it, but the unhealthy conditions of the yard."

The weather meant Arlington had to bump up the mowing schedule for 150 miles of roadway medians. Work began in mid-February, said Scott Crossnoe, park services supervisor.

"This year, the growth was so escalated they were cutting through places that were 2, 21/2 feet tall. They were just trudging through it," he said.

Staff writer Eva-Marie Ayala contributed to this report.

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @shirljinkins

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