CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Insect pest populations in Illinois could be larger this spring due to above-average temperatures in the winter, scientists at the University of Illinois said.

Scientists with the Prairie Research Institute at U of I said that statewide temperatures from December to February averaged 34 degrees, which is four degrees higher than the long-term average. This in turn caused soil temperatures to average 38 degrees, three degrees higher than the long-term average.

But air and soil temperatures in the central and southern part of the state climbed even higher. Air temperatures reached the 70s in the last week of February and soil temperatures reached the 60s on March 6.

These above-average temperatures sparked questions about the potential for pests during the coming growing season. Kelly Estes, PRI state agricultural pest survey coordinator, said the conditions have been favorable for pests that overwinter in soil or other places close to the ground, like grass and leaf debris.

Estes added that while warmer air and soil temperatures are certainly favorable to insect survival, these conditions also benefit their natural enemies: parasitoids, predators and pathogens. Spring conditions, like late freezes and excessive moisture, may also affect insect survival.

“While there is no easy answer to predict what we might experience this coming growing season, we can say for certainty that insects will be around,” Estes said.

State Entomologist Chris Dietrich said most insects are well adapted to cold temperatures. Beetles, stink bugs and worms are some of the pests that plant their eggs in soil. While some people may think bugs only harm crops, plants or flowers, it’s actually the opposite. Chris Dietrich says they provide benefits like chewing on decaying plant roots and transferring pollination from plant to plant. He said the real problem is climate change.

“There have been studies that show that there are mismatches between the times when the pollinators are active and when the plants are actually blooming in flowers. So, there definitely can be some problems there. And a lot of that is related to climate change,” Dietrich said.