For Richard Frank, it’s normally the insects that are buzzing. But in the weeks after Hurricane Ian’s landfall, the incessant buzzing now comes from his phone.
“I’ve had five calls today alone about ants,” said Frank, owner of Do It Yourself Pest Control in St. Petersburg. “The ants are going crazy right now.”
After nearly four decades of doing business in Pinellas County, Frank knows the drill after a hurricane: Strong winds knock down tree limbs and disturb the natural habitat for rodents and bugs, sending them scurrying for shelter. Rainfall turns to stagnant water, which attracts mosquitoes. And now, as debris piles await their pickup throughout Tampa Bay, the pests are finding new homes. Often in yours.
“I’ve absolutely seen a change since the storm,” said Frank, a licensed entomologist. The uptick of customer calls in Ian’s aftermath have included bagworms (“10 times worse than I’ve ever seen them”), rats (“they get displaced after big storms”), millipedes (“about 50 customers calling me a week about ‘em”), roaches (“constant”) and ants (“crazy”).
It makes sense that pest encounters are increasing in Florida — the biggest urban pest-management market in America — after a devastating Category 4 storm walloped the state, according to Michael Scharf, a professor of urban entomology at the University of Florida. There’s a ton of bugs in Florida’s subtropical climate, and they have to go somewhere when hundreds of miles of habitat are suddenly altered.
“This is something that’s been seen many times before with storms,” Scharf said in an interview. “Now that waters have receded, and when there are debris piles everywhere, (pests) will thrive. They love woody, decaying biomass or structures that may have been damaged in the storm.”
Scharf’s job, as he describes it, is at the intersection of bugs, the public, the pest control industry and state regulatory industries. And as a recent Indiana expat, he’s quickly finding that Florida is a busy place for critters.
“Florida is like the invasion biology capital of America,” he said. Especially after a storm: “They’re in a new habitat, and they’re having to explore it and find food. So their interactions with people are going to be much more common.”
It doesn’t help that the Tampa Bay area is an overly buggy place. In 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau in an American Housing Survey found our metropolitan area had more roaches than Miami, New York or Houston. At the time, roughly 40% of the 1,000 households surveyed said they had roaches.
The unwanted title of buggiest city in Florida has since been reclaimed by the South Florida area, where 29% of households reported roach sightings and 4% reported rodents, according to the same survey four years later.
It’s not just the locally owned shops that are noticing the uptick in pests post-Ian. The larger corporations are, too, according to Thomas Dobrinska, an urban entomologist with Rentokil and an expert in residential pest control.
Though Tampa Bay was spared the worst impacts from Ian, there was still enough to change animals’ wild habitat, Dobrinska said.
“It wasn’t like there was a tepid little storm in Tampa Bay — it was still an event,” Dobrinska said. The company also documented a rise in reports of dispersed mice and other rodents, and a “significant increase” in ants and American cockroaches.
“When you have a catastrophic event like Hurricane Ian, it’s so significant that you get this massive displacement of this environment that’s been affected. So pests disperse into businesses and homes,” Dobrinska said. “That balance will come back eventually, but not immediately. Sometimes it’s a matter of months — or even years.”