Mosquitoes lack their usual bite this summer

August 26, 2006|By ROB KASPER

This dry-as-toast summer might be tough on lawns, but it also has put the kibosh on mosquitoes.

For a time, I thought the recent downturn in mosquito bites was a personal issue, that my flesh had lost its appeal. Then I telephoned Cy Lesser, Maryland's top gun in the battle against mosquitoes, and he confirmed that the downturn in itching and scratching is a statewide phenomenon.

"Overall, this has been a mild season for mosquitoes," said Lesser, the chief of the Mosquito Control Section of the state Department of Agriculture.

Dry conditions, he said, are the main reasons for the drop in the mosquito population. Lack of rain -- the state is in a condition of near-drought -- has deprived the mosquitoes of one of their favorite lairs, standing water, he said. Lesser proceeded to give me the equivalent of a "Mosquito Year in Review."

The spring was exceptionally dry, he said, which was bad news for mosquitoes but good news for us, their human blood meals. The heavy rains at the end of June rang alarm bells, and resulted in a short period of delight for the mosquitoes but agony for those bitten, he said.

Since early July, however, the heavens, as well as the roadside ditches, have dried up and the mosquito population has suffered. "That," said Lesser, "is probably the only good news of the drought."

There have been exceptions to this season's statewide drop in pestilence, he said. A full moon and a strong tide got together recently in Dorchester County to flood the low-lying areas and produce more of the area's ferocious salt-marsh mosquitoes. And in Prince George's County, some Asian tiger mosquitoes have been found carrying West Nile virus, he said.

After discussing the statewide status of the war against the mosquitoes, I steered the conversation to my backyard. I felt like I was getting battle tips from a four-star general.

Lesser quickly moved through the basics of the backyard battle -- eliminating standing water, keeping the grass cut, not relying on anecdotal tactics such as building purple martin houses (these birds actually prefer to eat beetles) or spraying everything in sight with garlic. Your yard may smell good, Lesser said of the garlic tactic, but the bugs will still be there.

Noting the nuanced nature of the conflict, Lesser said that there are 62 kinds of mosquitoes that fly in Maryland. They all snack on something, he said, but they don't agree on what is best to bite. About 12 to 15 varieties snack on humans, but even then, they, too, differ on what they find attractive. Part of the dance between man and mosquitoes is finding the trap or the spray that will be effective against particular types of mosquitoes, he said.

When Lesser mentioned he and other vector-control specialists were abuzz about a new trap that reportedly was catching Asian tiger mosquitoes, I got excited. This black and white mosquito is my nemesis. It is a lousy flier, but is an aggressive biter, and most summers it feasts on me both in daylight and darkness.

I looked up this trap on the new-products section of a Web site, It was impressive. It uses both chemicals that smell like human skin and a fan that replicates air currents "given off by the human host" to lure mosquitoes to their death. I wanted this BG Sentinel Trap, until I saw the price, about $400 with shipping.

Instead, I opted for a less expensive, but more labor-intensive tactic, attacking the corrugated pipe in my backyard. The pipe connects to a downspout and carries rainwater and condensation from our rooftop air conditioner away from the house. A small amount of water resides in the ridges in the bottom of this pipe. Asian tiger mosquitoes, Lesser told me, have been known to lurk there.

Sure enough, when I popped a section of drainpipe loose, a couple of Asian tigers went for me. I guess they had not gotten the memo about this being a down year.

I bought a bottle of Cutter Bug Free Yard (about $10 at Home Depot) and screwed it on to the end of my garden hose. The main ingredient is permethrin, which, as I understand it, is one of the safer ingredients to use in the battle against bugs.

Lugging the hose and sprayer up to the roof, I shot a dose into the downspout that connected to the drainpipe. Next, down on the ground, I shot the potion into the disconnected sections of drainpipe. When I was convinced that the nooks and crannies -- potential Asian tiger mosquito breeding grounds -- had been treated, I put the pipe back together.

My backyard seemed to be mosquito-free, but the question is how long this state will last. I know better than to believe the promise of four weeks of bug-free bliss promised by a label on the spray. I am hoping for a week or two free of the nuisance.

But mosquitoes are persistent. And, as Lesser pointed out to me, even though this has been a relatively bug-free summer, the season is not over.

If a hurricane comes our way, mosquitoes could enjoy a late surge.

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