Saturday, October 2, 2004

The mole hunter

Lots of the critters in your yard? Blame it on the cicadas

By Dan Klepal
Enquirer staff writer

One pest has led to a bumper crop of another.

Those noisy 17-year cicadas - the flying, red-eyed bugs that emerged from the ground by the billions this summer - provided a fantastic food source for moles during the spring as the insect babies - or nymphs - were underground waiting to dig out.

Experts say moles love to eat worms and ants, but are more than happy to munch on nymphs, particularly when there are several billion for the picking.

Phil Scarbrough uses a trapping system to capture and kill the pesky varmits that destroy lawns.
(Enquirer photo/Michael E. Keating)
Cicada special section

That cicada buffet has allowed female moles that usually have two or three babies to produce litters of up to six.

"There are more moles per acre than at any time since 1987," the last time the 17-year cicadas emerged, said Tom Schmidt, a 60-year-old Westwood resident, better known as The Mole Man, who has been trapping moles since 1986.

Schmidt is considered an authority on the small diggers and regularly lectures on moles at universities including Purdue, Clemson, Ohio State and Penn State.

Moles live almost exclusively underground. They dig extensive tunnel networks in search of food.

The tunnels act like a spider's web - worms and ants moving through the earth break through the surface and drop into the tunnel, causing a vibration or sound that gets the mole's attention.

Unfortunately for many homeowners, those tunnels can destroy gardens and flower beds, and can even uproot trees or shrubs.

Judy Berhalter has noticed more moles in her Anderson Township yard this year. Berhalter, 52, said she has a couple of moles every year. This year, they are "intolerable," she said.

"It's been just horrible," she said. "They're digging up every section of my perennial beds and are tunneling under my (vegetable) garden," she said. "They're having a field day."

More moles as cicadas grow

Mole populations gradually increase as cicada nymphs grow large enough to become a food source - about five years before the bugs actually emerge. Periodical cicadas in Greater Cincinnati come out in 13- and 17-year cycles.

This year, those periodical nymphs were at their largest in the spring, just as the moles were ready to have litters.

There are a lot of theories on how to get rid of moles, and most of them don't work. The only certain way of eliminating the pesky diggers is by skewering them in their tunnels, several experts on the subject say. Several devices are available on the market, or enterpreneurs such as Schmidt and Phil Scarbrough, owner of Mole Eradication in Montgomery, will come out and do the killing over several months.

Scarbrough said he's noticed about a 20 percent increase in catches this year.

"The average person won't have moles in any given year, but sooner or later, almost everyone will get them," Scarbrough said.

What doesn't work

Among the unproven methods for getting rid of moles:

 Chemicals. There are no poisons or chemical products registered or effective at repelling moles. Poisons will kill a lot of mice, which use mole tunnels, but not the moles.

 Frightening. Some electronic, magnetic and vibration devices have been promoted as effective in scaring moles away. None has been proven effective.

 Fumigants. Two fumigants, aluminum phosphide and gas cartridges, are federally registered for use against moles, but they are most effective when placed in deep burrows, not in surface runways. Those deep burrows are hard to get to.

 The kitchen sink. Remedies such as pickle juice, broken glass, red pepper, razor blades, bleach, moth balls, rose branches, human hair balls, castor oil and even explosives have been tried and usually found ineffective.

Carol Mundy, a naturalist with the Hamilton County Park District, said people notice moles more in the summer and fall because they are digging closer to the surface. In winter, moles dig deeper tunnels because their food moves deeper to avoid frozen ground.

"In winter, they'll be 18 inches or so down, so you don't notice them," Mundy said. "But the moles are active all winter. They don't store food, and they don't hibernate. But in summer and fall, it becomes an us-against-them situation for a lot of people."

Mole facts

• Moles are not rodents. They belong to a group of mammals known as insectivores (insect eaters).

• A 5-ounce mole can consume 45-50 pounds of worms and insects each year.

• Moles can dig tunnels at about 18 feet an hour.

• Moles have twice as much blood and twice as much hemoglobin as other mammals their size so they can breathe more easily underground in low oxygen.

• Moles can't hibernate during winter because they don't store food; they simply dig deeper tunnels to avoid frozen ground.



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