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Early spring brings flowers, but also pollen

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ATLANTA » Spring, with its promise of flip-flops and daffodils, can have a dark side. Take this one, which hit so early in many parts of the nation that the headaches are outweighing the sunny benefits.

High temperatures and a sudden bloom have turned what some call the Bible Belt into the Pollen Belt. Insects usually not seen for a month or two are out in full force in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains.

Chicago is in its eighth day of 80-degree heat. And in New York, a string of days more than 20 degrees warmer than usual have sent baffled residents searching for sundresses and wondering if it is too soon to schedule a trip to the garden store.

Over the last seven days, 4,412 high-temperature records were broken, according to the National Weather Service.

And with that heat comes trouble. In Atlanta, the pollen count on Tuesday hit a record 9,369 parts per cubic meter of air. Normally, it tops out around 3,000 this time of year, said Glenn Burns, the veteran meteorologist for WSB-TV.

"I don’t know how we’re breathing," he said.

One visual indication of the bizarre shift in season is the early and extra-heavy arrival of yellow pine pollen, which has dusted this city like powdered sugar on a doughnut. It is so thick that Stanley Joffe is running a pollen special at Avril’s Car Wash.

For $6, he simply hoses down a car and dries it. A driver could easily buy two or three a day.

"People know that as soon as they leave, they’ll just need another car wash," Joffe said.

Dr. Todd Adkins, an immunologist at the Mississippi Asthma and Allergy Clinic in Jackson, barely had time to catch his breath between patients, who also could not catch theirs. They are showing up miserable, their noses running and throats scratchy.

"This is truly the busiest I’ve ever been this time of year," he said.

In parts of the Midwest, where the winter was mild, the ants, bees and mosquitoes are out in force. That’s good news for Elia Levin, owner of the Gold Seal Termite and Pest Control Co. His company is based in Indianapolis but also fields exterminators in Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio. "You see things you haven’t seen in years and insects we won’t normally see for another month or month and half," he said.

Of course, it is good for business.

"How can you complain when you’ve got an extra month of income-producing weather?" he said. "People are calling us and saying, ‘I didn’t call you to wait for four months. I want you out here right now."’

Not everyone is celebrating the early onset of insects. The early warmth is adding to the rapidly growing population of the rare, invasive plataspid in the South. The bugs eat kudzu — a good thing in the South — but can also devastate soy crops. The insects first showed up in 2009 in Georgia. Now they have spread to South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama and even Virginia. The weather will only enhance their march across the South, said Jeremy Greene, associate professor of entomology at Clemson University.

"I’m already getting a dozen phone calls and emails every day about the kudzu bug," he said.

In Colorado, where people in ski towns are marveling at driveways free from snow, destructive mountain pine beetles will likely be out so early they will have time to mate twice.

That means 60 times as many beetles attacking trees, according to researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The rapid mating cycle started a few years ago, said Jeffry Mitton, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. He and other researchers blame climate change. Some meteorologists suspect the warm weather is an effect of recent solar flares. Still others say the early spring is part of the weather pattern known as La Nina. And then there is the explanation from the National Weather Service: A large subtropical high-pressure system is lingering above the western Atlantic, blocking cold air from blowing down.

Whatever the reason, the early weather is throwing all kinds of ritual spring activities off kilter.

The dogwood trees have bloomed in Atlanta, more than a month ahead of the annual Dogwood Festival in mid-April.

At the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York, maybe 800 people might walk the grounds on a typical mid-March day. Wednesday, the staff had to manage nearly 3,900, said Scot Medbury, the president.

Winter-white skin is on parade early, too, prompting this Twitter posting from Bill Daley of The Chicago Tribune: "Just saw first shirtless ‘dude’ of the season. Not a good sight for Michigan Avenue on 20 March, even if spring has sprung."

Dan Barber, who runs the Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and Pocantico Hills, N.Y., said the good news is that ramps, the oniony harbinger of spring, are being picked earlier than he has known in his 20 years at the stove. The bad news is that diners’ expectations are out of kilter.

"They ask, ‘Where are the tomatoes and asparagus?"’ he said. "They see the weather and wonder why we aren’t serving those vegetables yet."

And although gardeners are heading to the plant store, experts say wait. A cold snap could still be looming.

"If there were to be a snowstorm and if the trees were leafed out, the damage would be immense," said Peter Del Tredici, senior research scientist at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. "Mother Nature can be very cruel."

And all this talk of record-breaking warm weather is little solace to people in parts of Nevada, Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, where spring is expressing itself in cold and sometimes wet weather.

In Seattle on Wednesday, temperatures were in the 40s. Tracy Record, editor of the West Seattle blog, wore a fleece sweater.

"We would be more than thrilled to have a heat wave," she said. "We had ice pellet showers yesterday."

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