No, I’m not talking about a bad science fiction movie — I’m talking about how the range of many of our “peskier” insects and pests are expanding thanks to our changing climate. 

I know it’s hard to think about insects and other pests during the middle of the winter. But as the weather begins to warm we’ll again be inundated with bugs of all kinds. Furthermore, as the global temperature has slowly increased, so has the range of insect pests.

Case in point…. the red imported fire ant. First brought to the U.S. through the port of Mobile, Ala. from Brazil in 1918, the red imported fire ant has now spread throughout much of the southern U.S. 

More aggressive than most native ants, the red imported fire ants are known to swarm out of dens when disturbed, attacking a perceived threat all at once, stinging and biting with a toxin that leaves serious welts and can cause serious injury to people and livestock. 

First spotted in Texas in the 1950s, these invaders have now reached all way across the state and as far north as the top of the panhandle. In the mid-1980s they made their way across the Red River in Oklahoma, eventually reaching all the way to the northern tier of counties.

Now what does this all have to do with climate change?  Well, that’s where I enter the story. 

Many of you know that I am a “recovering politician” which is a nice way to say that from 1994 to 2004 I served as a member of the Oklahoma Legislature. During this time, I served for several years as the vice-chair of the House Agriculture Committee, and in this capacity had the opportunity to attend several ag conferences where issues effecting both Oklahoma and Texas were discussed.  

One item that was often talked about was the spreading fire ant infestation. I can clearly remember listening to a speaker in 1994 talk about the challenges this insect was presenting but that we didn’t have to worry much in Oklahoma because “it couldn’t get much further north than two counties above the Red River.”

Jump forward a few years later: I clearly remember a similar talk, except the speaker said that the fire ant “has now been found in central Oklahoma, but it can’t get much further north.”  

Now, I as I mentioned earlier, these little pests have found their way to some of the northern counties and many believe that one of the primary reasons is the “cold line” that was supposed to keep the ants in check has slowly moved north due to the warming temperatures that we are experiencing.

And fire ants aren’t alone. If you grow milo (grain sorghum) in Texas, Oklahoma or Kansas you probably are familiar with the sugarcane aphid, or at least you are now. Prior to 2013 this pest was only known to feed on sugarcane in areas like southern Texas and Louisiana.

Starting in that year, however, these bugs began to survive the winter, move north and switch their diet from strictly sugarcane to grain sorghum. Now these insects have been found infesting fields as far north as Kansas. 

As is the case of fire ants, many believe that one of the primary reasons for this migration is that the “cold line” that for decades dictated how far certain species could migrate has moved farther north, thanks to our changing climate.

Whether it’s fire ants, sugarcane aphids, ticks or weevils, it’s becoming evident that climate change is affecting the types of pests we are facing in agriculture and it will only get more challenging over time.  I know it’s hard to focus on it in the winter, but the bug invasion is just around the corner.

I’ve always heard the stories of the canaries in the coal mines that were used as early warning signs of increasing gas levels in the air. Maybe the changing range of insects are sending us a similar message about our changing climate. Instead of a canary in a coal mine it’s a fire ant and a cold line.