It's still early in the planting season on Georgia farms, with most of the cotton and peanuts still to be planted. But crops already in the fields -- especially wheat, corn and tobacco -- are running into early trouble.
"The mild winter and mild, dry spring have led to increased insect populations," said Randy Hudson, an entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
Insects normally can hit Georgia crops only in small numbers by mid-April. But this year's weather, Hudson said, has enabled many insects to multiply early through many generations. So their populations are unusually high.
"Hessian flies have been found at a very high level in some south Georgia wheat fields," Hudson said.
Hudson has alerted farmers and county extension agents to check for Hessian fly damage in anemic fields of early-planted wheat.
Georgia growers don't normally treat their fields for Hessian flies. They can control the pests with a soil insecticide at planting. But mostly they rely on resistant varieties and planting practices to keep down populations.
Hessian flies can cut yields dramatically in heavily infested fields. And they aren't the only problems Georgia wheat is encountering.
"Aphids are causing some damage statewide," Hudson said. "We're encouraging growers to scout for aphids and to treat their wheat if populations exceed threshold levels."
The aphids are sucking the juices from wheat plants as the plants are forming heads of grain. That not only cuts yields, but lowers the weight, and therefore the quality, of the grain the plants produce.
James Clark, an extension agent in Applying County, said the mild winter has hurt wheat farmers in another way.
"We've got some late-season wheat that just isn't going to head," he said. "It just didn't get enough cold weather."
Farmers often plant a mix of early-, mid- and late-season varieties, Clark said, to spread their risks and get the best mix of varieties. Many good varieties are late-season, or long-season, wheat. While they offer protection against late freezes, they also require more chill hours to produce grain heads. And this year they didn't get them.
Overall wheat losses haven't been heavy yet. "Right now, probably 10 percent would cover it," Clark said. But some farmers have been hard-hit. "One grower in the county," he said, "has plowed up 200 acres of late-season wheat."
Hudson said chinch bugs and stinkbugs are also invading fields of tender, young corn. So are wireworms and rootworms, which feed on developing seedlings and strip roots from young plants, causing them to wilt and die.
Tobacco, too, is taking an early hit.
"We've had a very early flight of tobacco budworms," said extension entomologist David Jones. "They're causing problems in early-transplanted tobacco."
Tobacco budworms started showing up in force in the second week of April, he said. That's three to four weeks earlier than normal.
"Flea beetles, too, are tearing us up in recently transplanted tobacco," he said.
Jones expects mid-April rains to add mole crickets to the list of insects bugging Georgia tobacco.
"We definitely have more insect problems than we had this time last year," he said.