Charleston County sucking the life out of mosquito season 

Itchy and Scratchy Show

Bloodsuckers can be cool — think Dracula, Lestat, Count Chocula. They have a certain mystique that many of us find attractive. But mosquitoes? When it comes to those real-life bloodsuckers, well, they're not so hip. Maybe it's because they spread less-than-pleasant diseases like malaria and the West Nile virus or because they're a primary food source for other equally unloved species like spiders and bats. Or maybe it's because they're simply a pain in the neck, not to mention the arms and the legs and pretty much any other body part they manage to bite. Charleston County alone is home to 52 species of the blood-drinking pests.

"Anywhere there's water, you've got potential for them to live," says Brian Hayes, a field inspector with Charleston County Mosquito Control. "There are mosquitoes everywhere, even in Alaska."

Each U.S. state likely believes their mosquitoes are the worst, but in South Carolina we're confident enough to emblazon trucker hats and koozies with their image, honoring the lowly insect as the unofficial "state bird." And were it not for control efforts, by April we might find ourselves carried away by swarms of them in a freaky Hitchcockian scenario.

To prevent that, the county has a team of about 20 field inspectors, sprayers, and scientists (including their own helicopter and pilot), whose sole job is to keep our bare arms and legs from getting covered in itchy red bumps. Over the month of February, teams are knocking on doors across Charleston, giving out informational packets and "mosquito swatters" with the phone numbers to call if you notice a substantial increase in the needle-nosed insects.

"Our main goal is to educate people and to let them know what they can do on their property to eliminate mosquitoes," says Hayes. "Everybody that has tires, bird baths, tarps, or dog bowls should be making sure that water doesn't sit longer than three days."

Ditches, holes in trees, and flower pots are all prime habitat for a knocked-up mosquito to drop her eggs. Even an upturned cap from a bottle of Coke can harbor over 20 larvae, Hayes says.

As the control team canvasses neighborhoods, they ask to examine backyards for possible mosquito reservoirs. They look for "wigglers," the tiny swimming larvae, and take samples to their lab technicians to monitor which species they find. Unavoidable hazards like holes and ditches are treated with charcoal briquettes that cause larvae to either die or hatch "missing a wing or some legs," while artificial surfaces have to be maintained by conscientious residents who turn over any water-collecting-objects after a rain event. For big enough ground depressions, the County keeps a stock of "bamboozi," or mosquito fish, which reproduce quickly and feed on insect larvae, one reason mosquitoes aren't a big problem around ponds.

The freshwater, backyard mosquitoes are the ones most likely to carry infamous diseases like West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis, and they're the hardest to treat with chemicals, because they remain within 100 yards of their birthplace and fly only during the day. Salt marsh mosquitoes, however, can travel as far as 100 miles, 1,000 feet in the air. They're more aggressive biters, and the predominance of dredging around our marshes for development creates still water and breeding habitat that can send populations off the chart after a heavy rain in warm weather.

To control the salt marsh varieties, inspectors visit the most susceptible areas and conduct "landing counts" of how many mosquitoes land on them in a minute, a prime candidate for "World's Dirtiest Jobs." Those counts, combined with calls and complaints from residents, determine which neighborhoods get a visit from the spray truck each spring and summer evening.

The county sprays about 730,000 acres by truck and 100,000 acres by plane each year, primarily with the chemical Naled, a fatal cocktail to any insect who comes in contact with it, as well as amphibians and most small sea animals.

"It's a contact spray, so as soon as it comes out of the truck it has to actually touch the mosquito to kill it," says Hayes.

Naled breaks down within a day of being sprayed, and despite being "highly to moderately toxic" to birds, fish, and small mammals, the low concentration used in aerial and truck spraying has been deemed safe for humans. "Any approved chemical has been researched, so as long as it's used according to the directions on the label, it's safe," explains Cecil Hernandez, an investigator for Clemson University Pesticide Regulation, the agency responsible for approving pesticides in S.C.

Though it's an approved substance, Hernandez says that "to be on the safe side, it would be a good idea" to go inside when you see the truck heading down your street. Can you head back out as soon as the truck passes and the spray dissipates? "I'd probably wait a little bit, just to make sure it hits the ground," says Hernandez. "Once most pesticides hit the earth, they're safe."

Although Naled comes with a "Danger — Poison" label, studies have shown that test subjects who consume non-organic fresh fruits and vegetables have higher levels of pesticide in their urine than those subjects exposed to regular low level exposure to mosquito control spray. Still, if you're concerned about the stinging in your eyes when the spray man cruises by, Mosquito Control keeps a "do-not-spray" list of citizens who want the machine cut off when the truck passes their house, for allergy or health reasons.

When the problem gets bad though, the airplanes and helicopters take off, and everyone gets an equal dusting. By becoming mindful of standing water in their yard, people can minimize their exposure both to spraying and to the little suckers out for blood. Because no one likes playing connect the dots on their body.

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