It's Going to Be a Glorious Spring

March 16, 1994|By EDWARD FLATTAU

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It's hard for anyone in this winter-weary region to imagine that the long string of sub-zero temperatures, ice storms and frigid wind gusts will produce any benefits. Yet we are going to experience a windfall, and I'm not talking about a greater appreciation of milder weather once spring arrives.

The winter of '94 was the fifth-coldest in the Washington area since the National Weather Service began keeping seasonal records 52 years ago. The region's average January temperature was 28.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the tenth-coldest January recorded during the 110 years that monthly readings have been tallied. In one span of several weeks the temperature never rose above freezing and dipped below zero several times.

And of course, Washington was not alone. Much of the country was in the grip of an unusually bitter cold wave for varying periods of time.

A silver -- or green -- lining to all this wintry ferocity should show up in our parks, farmlands, front yards and home gardens soon. The harsh weather is quite likely to have increased the mortality of many insect pests, as well as rodents. As a result, chances are that many plants will do a lot better than usual early in the season -- and without the need for very much in the way of insect spray.

Especially vulnerable to the cold are those insect pests that burrow only a few inches into the ground and then stay put for the winter. The Arctic weather froze the land surface solid and undoubtedly created conditions beyond most of those creatures' tolerance levels. It's not just the low temperature that can be fatal to insects. If the frozen soil is dry and brittle, it can desiccate their underground shelters.

Other insect species don't go into a state of winter dormancy. Deprived of a protective physiological slowdown, they. too, will have suffered severe losses.

There is no way to generalize how much of a warm-weather respite the harsh winter will give us from insect pests. Much depends on the characteristics of a particular bug, the density of its population at winter's start, the degree and length of the cold snap, and the weather when spring returns. Insects are actually more vulnerable to temperature fluctuations in the spring when they are much more exposed to the elements.

Even if nature does grant us some relief, jubilation should be tempered by the realization that the reprieve will probably be brief, perhaps not even lasting through the summer. Insect evolution over millions of years has made them incredibly resilient. Some species, when their population is decimated by the vagaries of nature, actually seem to contain a biological regulator that accelerates reproductive activity. Fewer bugs have more offspring, and it isn't long before populations are at pre-winter levels.

Then, there are some insects that are so adaptable they can withstand even harsher-than-normal winters. White grubs move out of harm's way by burrowing as deep as three or four feet beneath the earth's surface to escape the cold. Unless the freeze is of a magnitude that can penetrate that far down, the creatures will survive.

Another sobering thought: ''good'' as well as bad insects perish in a severe winter. Most insect species fall into the beneficial category.

Still, the below-average temperatures this winter are likely to mean reduced pest populations, enhancing both professional and amateur cultivators' prospects for an early bumper crop. Nature is going to make amends for her savage winter behavior.

Edward Flattau syndicates a column on environmental matters.

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