Mosquito control gears up

PANAMA CITY BEACH — Mosquitoes can quickly put a damper on any outdoor activity, and the ability of the tiny blood-sucking insects to spread disease makes them more of a public health threat than a nuisance.

The 13-member staff of the Beach Mosquito Control District is dedicated to alleviating the risks posed by mosquitoes through research and population control, but are also marking Mosquito Control Awareness Week, which continues through Saturday, by asking residents to redouble their efforts at eliminating potential breeding grounds around their home.

Cindy Mulla of the Beach Mosquito Control District said 45 species of mosquitoes reside in the Panhandle and about 80 statewide. Several of these species are a primary conduit for the spread of diseases, including eastern equine encephalitis, St. Louis encephalitis, West Nile and heartworms. The Beach Mosquito Control District tests mosquitoes and monitors diseases in its area, which spans from the Hathaway Bridge to Lake Powell. In the last three to four years, very few mosquito-related viruses were reported in the region, but Bay County had the highest rate of West Nile infection in Florida in 2005.

Florida’s heat and humidity has long made it an ideal location for mosquitoes. In the 19th century, Mulla said Panama City and the surrounding area were part of what was referred to as the “malaria belt,” a strip beginning in Daytona Beach and extending northwest that was infamous for high malaria fatalities each year. Mosquitoes played a key role in spreading the disease. Wealthy residents typically moved north during the hottest months, but those without the means to do so suffered greatly, she said.

“Without mosquito control, this area would be nearly uninhabitable,” Mulla said.

Wet weather in April and May led to a large uptick in mosquitoes, but a relatively dry June has caused the population to fall significantly, etymologist Dale Martin said. The fastest growing population identified recently has been domestic mosquitoes, which people breed in and around their homes without even knowing it. The mosquito control district is reminding people to empty standing water from where it might pool around the home. Plant saucers, kiddie pools and wheelbarrows also are popular culprits.

“One bird bath has the potential to spawn 10,000 mosquitoes in one year,” Mulla said.

The explosive ability of the insects to multiply — one female mosquito lays about 250 eggs at a time — has caused the mosquito control district to focus on killing larvae before they mature to adulthood. About 1,000 ditches, catch basins and retention ponds in the district are treated regularly with insecticide, and crews also respond to resident complaints.

It is impossible to stop all larvae from maturing, so the district also maintains a helicopter to spray areas with high concentrations of mosquitoes.

While some people have expressed concern over the chemicals in the spray, pilot Brad Gunn said only about two tablespoons of insecticide is used to treat about an acre of land. The spray is also highly targeted and can be used only in areas where the mosquito population has reached a high concentration. The district closely monitors the mosquito population with traps.

“Any spraying we do we have to have justification,” Gunn said. “The days of just wild guessing are long gone. … The people at the beach appreciate it I think. They’re used to seeing me.”

On an individual level, Mulla said following the five Ds of prevention will minimize exposure to the pests: wearing DET insect repellent, draining standing water, dressing in clothing with long sleeves and pants and avoiding the outdoors at dawn and dusk.

People also can report problems with mosquitoes at http://www.pcbeachmosquito.org. Mulla said crews are on the road every day and will respond to complaints in a timely manner.

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