Staff at the East Flagler Mosquito Control District beat back the swarms to help keep Flagler County habitable. Here’s how they do it.
Before the morning sun has burned the dew from the grass, a big man in jeans and a fishing shirt trudges out to a patch of weedy growth — out where it’s just moist enough for the ground to squish beneath his camouflage wading boots — and stand motionless, waiting for the mosquitoes to find him.
He lets the seconds pass, silently: One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi …
One finds him. He doesn’t swat it.
Four Mississippi, five Mississippi …
By the time 60 Mississippis have passed, only two mosquitoes found East Flagler Mosquito Control District technician Lou Sabatini at this mosquito trap site.
That’s pretty good.
“This year it’s been hardly anything, it’s been so dry,” said Sabatini, 55. Spring this year was worse: One day, he counted 26 or 27 while feeding the Mosquito Control District’s sentinel chickens.
The mosquito landing counts are a daily routine for Sabatini. Every workday morning, Sabatini and the other techs divide the district’s 40-some trap sites spread across the county between them, collecting the traps and counting the number of mosquito landings over the course of a minute.
Sabatini, who retired from a career with New York State Electric and Gas and started working with the district as a sprayer, calls the Mosquito Control District the best place he’s ever worked.
“You’re out in the elements, which I love to be,” he said. “You get to meet people all over the place. I haven’t found a drawback yet.”
Not even getting bitten, he said.
“I enjoy the hell out of it. My only fear is reaching down and grabbing a snake.” He’s seen rattlesnakes and water moccasins on his routes. “I even enjoy working at night when we spray. … I’ve seen big bobcats. I’ve heard panthers — you know how they cry out? — out on the islands.”
FROM THE AIR
Jacob Smith, 27, was talking fishing and sharks with 45-year-old District Chief Pilot Kevin Card as Card swung the district’s helicopter over the cinnamon, teal and aqua washes of the Matanzas Inlet.
Three small fishing boats had their bows pointed out toward open water, into the incoming tide. Nice day for reds, Smith said. Card, who flew Army helicopter gunships after studying aviation technology at Embry Riddle, agreed.
Smith, an aerial inspector for the district, likes to get his boots wet out in the marsh country. A bit later, after Card lowered the copter onto a spongy patch of wiregrass near the Matanzas River, he got his chance.
Smith and Card had noted the spot from the air: A stretch of shin-deep, stagnant dun-colored water cut off from the flowing body of the river looked like ideal mosquito egg habitat. It warranted a close-up check.
Smith hopped out of the copter, carrying a dipping tool and a glass jar. He dipped into the water, pulling out a cup or so of water the color of ale and teeming with mosquito larvae and pupae.
It looked like about 100 of them per dip, he said. That’s a lot. He and Card would have to fly back out later that day to spray an oily chemical solution that would smother the bugs.
That’s how mosquito control works, Card explained.
“We’re not out there putting stuff out just to put it out,” Card said. “We’re very targeted.”
The Mosquito Control District monitors weather, water levels and other factors to determine where mama skeeters are likely to lay their eggs, and pretreats those spots. Other areas, where eggs are already present, are treated with a larvicide. Areas that have adult mosquitoes can be treated with an adulticide.
The insecticides can be released with spraying equipment on the ground, from the water with the district’s airboat or Boston Whaler skiff, or from the district’s helicopter, a five-seater Bell 206 B3 Jetranger the district bought new in 2005.
Card takes the helicopter up twice a week on inspection flights — bringing it in low to hover next to rain gauges on the ground that he checks with his right hand, while managing the copter’s controls with his left — and treats likely breeding areas monthly with a pretreatment.
“The aircraft saves us a tremendous amount of time,” Card said. “We’ll cover the entire district in an hour, hour and a half. That might take days if you did it by boat.”
Mark Positano and Bill Hockla look at mosquitoes the way birders look at birds, scrutinizing the little flying beasts for markings on bodies, heads and legs that distinguish one species from another.
“We take pleasure in seeing that rare kind of mosquito — a culex, or a coronator — little things like that are what make us happy,” said Positano, the district’s assistant director and operations manager.
Every day, Sabatini and other district techs bring in traps filled with anywhere from dozens to more than 100,000 mosquitoes. Mosquito Control staff ID them under a microscope, and feed the data into computer programs that help the district keep track of what skeeters are breeding where, and in what numbers.
Hockla, the district’s surveillance coordinator, has probably caught five or 10 of the uncommon coronator mosquitoes so far this year, he said.
There are 48 mosquito species in Flagler County, and about 80 statewide, not all of which use humans as a blood source. The district has mosquito identification guides that look much like birding books, but Positano and Hockla don’t need them.
They can tell the more rounded abdomens of culex mosquitoes from the more pointed ones of the aeges mosquitoes — the kind that carry Zika — from the shiny body of the psorophora ferox, with its characteristic white socks.
“The ferox is probably one of my favorites, because it’s iridescent,” Positano said.
The district tries to get them young.
Mosquitoes have four life stages — egg, larvae, pupae and adult — and the district tries to kill the bugs before they reach adulthoood. If that’s not possible, the district can use adulticide, but that’s uncommon. Card said he hasn’t sprayed any so far this year.
“A lot of people have this idea that there’s mosquito control, and it’s fog trucks that go around the city and apply pesticides,” Positano said. “We do not do that. What we do do is apply pesticides as needed.”
In Florida, Positano said, mosquito control districts need to be able to justify their decision to spray to the state.
“You have to have some sort of justification. Landing rate count, trap count, etc. … if we have justification, then we can send out the trucks.”
Fogging is done at night, when the chemicals won’t affect butterflies, bees, or the ladybugs used to control pests in organic gardens. “When we’re putting the pesticide out, it’s a very small amount specific to mosquitoes,” Positano said. “So unless you’re a flying insect flying around at night you’re probably not going to kill anything.”
It’s also used in minuscule amounts, and won’t harm people or pets, Positano said. The foggers used in residential areas spray a solution of permethrin, the same stuff hikers and hunters buy in aerosol cans at outdoor stores to spray on their clothes.
Just three-quarters of an ounce of pesticide treats an entire acre of land.
Sometimes the district also sprays in response to service requests — when someone notifies the district that they have a mosquito problem on their property — and all too often, the reason the bugs are there is obvious.
“A lot of times, it’s people breeding their own mosquitoes,” Positano said. “I’ve seen people with 20 storage totes out, filled with water, and they’re going, ‘Hey, you’ve got to spray!’ Well, and you’ve got to dump your containers.”
Positano knows what it’s like to be chased down by a blood-sucking horde.
“I would go to knock on someone’s door to do a service request, and I’d have to run back to my truck because I’d be covered in mosquitoes,” he said. That was in Jefferson County, in the panhandle. It’s not like that here.
But that’s how many Americans know mosquitoes — a nuisance that can leave joggers swatting, or transform a pleasant hiking spot into a humming hell after a summer rain.
But public health experts like Positano know mosquitoes are more than just a nuisance.
Although techs like Sabatini, doing their morning mosquito landing counts, keep a close eye out for toothy critters like bears, snakes and gators while letting the skeeters bite; worldwide, mosquitoes — by serving as vectors for diseases like malaria, Dengue fever, eastern equine encephalitis and yellow fever — kill more people than all of those animals. Mosquito-borne illnesses kill about a million people each year.
For most Floridians today, skeeters aren’t a killer, but mosquitoes and the illnesses they spread have shaped Florida history, impeding the state’s development, causing plagues that killed off hundreds in settler towns, and contributing to the misery of troops dispatched in the state during the Seminole Wars and the Civil War.
General Alexander Webb wrote the following in his diary during the Seminole War, as recorded in Michael Grunwald’s “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise”:
“April 13: No peace from mosquitos. … Stayed up all night. … Mosquitos awful. 1,000,000,000 of them.
April 18: Mosquitos worse than ever. They make life a burden.
April 19: I am perfectly exhausted by the heat and eaten up by the mosquitos. … They are perfectly intolerable.”
The combination of mosquitoes and heat has also shaped Florida’s traditional Cracker architecture, making large open breezeways that created air currents to cool the home and deter the bugs a staple of houses built on old Florida homesteads. Settlers built their homes in open, windy areas to blow the pests away, and stocked ponds and ditches with fish that would eat mosquito eggs and larvae. Still, mosquitoes swarmed so thick they sometimes suffocated cattle.
Hikers, hunters and boaters don’t like the pesky bugs much more than Webb did, and mosquitoes still shape Florida’s tourism economy: Heavy swarms can suck away customers from hunting and fishing guides and from the hotels and restaurants that cater to their clients.
Positano and Hockla have come to a certain peace with the bugs.
“When I worked for Fish and Wildlife, we just hated them,” Hockla said. “Now we work in balance with them, but we do have to keep their populations in check.”
Positano agreed, noting that jobs in mosquito control attract outdoorsmen who are at home with the bugs.
“It almost self selects for people who want to go out into middle of nowhere with a machete and repellent or something to work with the mosquitoes,” he said.
How does Positano think of his relationship with mosquitoes?
“‘Know thy enemy,’” Positano said. “I’m kind of Zen warrior with them. I understand their need to exist. But I’m also going do everything I can to fight them.”
BOX: ZIKA VIRUS
Zika hasn’t made its way to Flagler County yet. But there are things residents can do to make Flagler County inhospitable for it, East Flagler Mosquito Control Assistant Director Mark Positano said.
“The mosquitoes that are spreading Zika are coming from your yard,” he said. “They’re coming from your containers that you haven’t dumped the water out of. … If people are looking for something they can do: This is something they can do. On their private property, that’s a personal responsibility type of thing.”
DID YOU KNOW? SEXING SKEETERS
Male mosquitoes and female mosquitoes have different looking heads, and you can tell them apart by sight. The males look like they have a “mustache” — bottle-brush looking, hair-lined antennae protruding from either side of the face. Females also have antennae, but their antennae are not thickly lined with hair the way the males’ are, so they’re not as noticeable to the naked eye.
The extra hairs on the males’ antennae are used for hearing the wingbeats of female mosquitoes. The sound is carried to an organ called the Johnston’s organ. Male mosquitoes use it to tell how nearby other mosquitoes are, whether they’re male or female, what species they are, and how fast their wingbeats are.
DID YOU KNOW? WING SPEED ON THE BIRDS AND THE BUGS
Mosquitoes’ wings beat 300-600 times per second. Mosquitoes’ wingbeat speeds affects the pitch of their buzzing. For comparison: American hummingbirds beat their wings at an average of 53 beats per second, according to the National Park Service.
DID YOU KNOW? LIFE CYCLE
Most people know mosquitoes like stagnant water to breed in. But some mosquitoes lay their eggs in plants like water hyacinths that hold water between their leaves, or lay them in the earth. When the eggs are laid in earth, rain water triggers the hatching. As long as they’re dry, those eggs can live for a very long time — for some species, as long as three to five years. Some mosquitoes can lay hundreds of eggs at a time. Temperature affects the speed of their life cycle progression.
DID YOU KNOW? MOSQUITO MEALS (OTHER THAN YOU)
When a mosquito sucks your blood, she (yes, that’s right — she!) isn’t using it for her own sustenance. Female mosquitoes of some — but not all — mosquito species use blood for the protein they need to grow their eggs. Male mosquitoes don’t need blood. Both male and female mosquitoes subsist off of sugar, and get it from plants.
DID YOU KNOW? WHAT ARE MOSQUITOES?
Mosquitoes are actually a form of fly: They’re part of the family culicidae. Unlike spiders, which are arachnids, mosquitoes are insects, with six legs. Like other insects, they have three main body parts: a head, a thorax and an abdomen. Various forms of mosquitoes have been around for about 100 million years.