ST. LOUIS — The mild winter and warm early spring isn't all good news for Missourians. Experts say ticks and mosquitoes are already becoming a problem.
Health officials told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that people should start protecting themselves.
Mosquito season typically starts later in April and lasts through September, while ticks are normally most active in April through July.
Vector control officials in St. Louis County say they're already finding active mosquito larvae, and ticks have already been spotted. Workers are sampling standing water and storm drains to treat any breeding areas for mosquitoes, a process that normally begins in about a month, said Drew Hane, manager of vector control for the St. Louis County Department of Health.
Without any significant cold snap over the winter, the insects have a better chance at surviving into summer.
"It's not good for the trees, but I would like to see a good freeze just for the bugs," Hane said.
To make matters worse, the early arrival of warm weather in March gave a head start to honeysuckle, a non-native, invasive plant species that researchers say provides breeding grounds for ticks.
A few years ago, University of Missouri-St. Louis biologist Robert Marquis and a team of scientists studied tick populations in areas of St. Charles County with and without honeysuckle infestation.
"What the experiments say is that your chances of contracting tick-borne diseases are five to eight times greater if you're walking through honeysuckle than walking through a non-honeysuckle infested area," he said. "Invasive species take over native landscapes ... and can come back and harm us directly."
Experts believe that ticks are attracted to honeysuckle because deer tend to sleep there.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Missouri's Ozark region is a hotbed for tick-borne diseases such as ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Both diseases peaked in Missouri in 2008, with 634 known cases.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services put out an alert to doctors last summer about a rise in ehrlichiosis activity. The disease, carried primarily by the Lone Star Tick, typically causes flu-like symptoms but can be fatal in rare cases.
Cases of lyme disease, also carried by ticks, are relatively rare in Missouri. The mosquito-borne West Nile virus has been on the decline in Missouri over the past few years.
Meanwhile, a predator of mosquitoes is facing its own challenges. Bats are one of nature's best defenses against mosquitoes. Conservationists are concerned about white nose syndrome, a disease that has reached Missouri after killing more than 1 million bats along the East Coast since 2006. Some Missouri caves will be closed to the public this summer to prevent the spread of the disease found in two Missouri caves in 2010.
A representative of the Missouri Department of Conservation said the state's 775,000 gray bats eat an estimated 223 billion bugs — mosquitoes but also moths and beetles — each year.