The Little Fly
“Mosquito” is the Spanish word for “little fly.” Indeed, mosquitoes belong to the order of fly called “Diptera.” The mosquito or Culicinae family, may be 226 million years old. The oldest mosquito fossils found with blood still in their abdomens are 46 million years old.
Within the mosquito family, there are over 3000 species. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on plant juices and nectars, but among the blood-sucking species, only the females suck blood; they need the blood protein to produce eggs.
The females lay their eggs in salt and/or fresh water, including salt marshes and fresh water lakes, holes in tree trunks, mud, in the curl of a leaf. In a bottle cap left on a beach. Mosquitoes that lay eggs in artificial water containers in human habitats are the most likely to pick up human pathogens and are, therefore, the most dangerous.
The Deadliest Animals on Earth
Mosquitoes are said to be responsible for more human deaths per year than any other animal, including humans, on earth. And yet, of the 41 genera of mosquitoes, only 3 are known to transmit diseases to humans. They are: the Anopheles, which transmit malaria, filariasis and encephalitis; the Culex, carrier of filariasis, viral encephalitis and West Nile Virus; and the Aedes, which vector encephalitis, yellow fever, dengue, chikungunya and Zika.
Absent only from the polar ends of the earth and on a few sub-polar islands like Greenland, mosquitoes are indisputably a world-wide plague. One mosquito can kill by the transmission of a disease, but swarms can kill by suffocation and exsanguination.
We have defended ourselves from the stabbing, saliva-drooling proboscises of these scaled flies with everything from mud to mesh netting, from herbs to electronic devices, with furious ditching, diking and draining projects the world over, and always, futilely, with flailing, smacking hands. For untold millennia, we have combated them, unsuccessfully, with every ounce of ingenuity in our collective possession until it seemed that not we, but the pestilent mosquito, tops the food chain.
Ah, but humans are determined, cunning, and resourceful beings. In 1939, a Swiss chemist named Paul Muller developed the world’s first chemical pesticide—DDT.
By The Dawn’s Early Light
After WWII, DDT became available for civilian use. In 1956, a 28-year-old civil engineer, employed in the Bureau of Malarial Control within the Florida State Board of Health, moved to Fort Myers. His name was T. Wainwright Miller. Lee County was in the process of consolidating area mosquito control districts to form the Lee County Mosquito Control District, and Miller was hired to direct the county-wide program. Under his direction, the LCMCD, formally established in 1958, assembled a fleet of army surplus DC3s and Bell helicopters that would make the LCMCD one of the leading mosquito control operations in the world.
Thus began the ground and aerial sweeps of Lee County with DDT.
Fort Myers resident, Doug Gouger, remembers ““I came to work at Lee Memorial in May 1966 and rented a little cottage by the river on Butler Road in N. Ft Myers. After unloading my car, I decided a shower would be nice. I got in the shower, turned it on and was overwhelmed by the most godawful smell I’d ever experienced. Before I could overcome that shock, a UFO with flashing yellow lights landed in my front yard. At least that’s what I thought it was. In fact, it was a mosquito control spray truck that had come to the end of the drive and turned in Mrs. Butler’s front yard with sprayer spraying and warning lights flashing.”
Doug continues: “Mosquito Control used WWII bombers to spray large areas with pesticide mixed with oil. To the uneducated eye the plane could appear to be on fire and, because they followed the railroad, they flew very low right over my house.” One morning, his mother, who was visiting from Tennessee, “came flying out of the guestroom screaming, “Get out quick! That things on fire, and it’s gonna crash right on the house!”
These aerial raids were often made in the dawn’s early light, the DC3s roaring down on us like Grumman bombers, streaming behind them in the mango-colored sky jets of DDT that, before air-conditioning, billowed into our windows and sent us diving, hearts pounding, for cover. The days of saturation bombing with DDT are, however, but a fond memory.
Today, just as all military missions and maneuvers are preceded by surveillance, intelligence gathering and strategic planning, so LCMCD’s mosquito combat operations are planned in collaboration with disease surveillance analysts and susceptibility bio assayers, and in partnership with research scientists at universities, other mosquito control districts, pesticide manufacturers and state, federal and international research laboratories. It is safe to say that today’s “intelligence gathering,” with regard to disease detection and mosquito control technologies, is a bit more complicated than it was in the early days.
Susan Gaff Garrison remembers that in the 1950s, “My father was one of the mosquito control workers who would drive to Punta Rassa or the Pine Island ‘boonies’ at night, park the truck and stick his bare arm out the window to count the number of bites he received in a measured amount of time. That count would inform the mosquito control where ‘fogging’ was most needed on subsequent days!”
Today, pilots, uniformed in fire-retardant flight suits, survival vests and helmets, conduct daytime larvae reconnaissance work in helicopters accompanied by research scientists. The LCMCD aerial larviciding program focuses on the coastal areas of Lee County that are often flooded by tides or rainfall and that are not accessible to ground vehicles. The pilot lands as directed by the inspector, who then wades in and dips up water to inspect it for larvae.
Based upon his findings, the inspector will direct where and when to spray the next day.
The size of the area to be sprayed determines whether a small chopper with an 80-gallon tank, or the Vietnam-era Huey, with its 350-gallon tank, will be flown in. Less than one ounce of larvicide to one gallon of water is used and only 2.33 gallons released per acre.
The smaller the aircraft, the closer the pilot can get to the larvae-infested area; a pilot can skim the target to as close as 10 feet.
By Air and by Land
The command center for the LCMCD occupies the site of Buckingham Army Airbase in Lehigh Acres, a WWII training base for aerial gunners. Today, aerial gunners lift off from this airfield to engage in bio warfare with mosquitoes.
LCMCD helicopters may be airborne 365 days a year, but the highest concentration of activity is April through October, the peak period of larval development. Alerted, however, to the presence of mosquito-borne disease, the District will launch larvicide and adulticide missions by both ground and air units. The products used in these sprays, incidentally, are EPA tested and approved.
Adulticiding missions are flown in turboprop King Airs, the Huey, or DC3s between 9:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., when mosquitoes are most active. Zeroing in on a computer-mapped grid and equipped with ULV (Ultra Low Volume) spray systems with atomizers, the pilots, in night-vision goggles, come in at an altitude of only 350 feet, releasing a 1000-foot-wide swath of pesticide that is designed to hang in the air in order to kill mosquitoes in flight.
Ground testing and spraying operations are carried out by trucks targeting standing water in roadside ditches, retention ponds and fields, as well as in community neighborhoods where domestic inspections have been requested by private citizens. The adulticide trucks operate only at night and use the ULV technology that atomizes the product into the air to kill flying mosquitoes.
Trucks also monitor mosquito populations at night, every night, May through October, at 54 strategically designated locations around the county. Rather than offering an arm to the blood suckers out a truck window, the driver traps mosquitoes along a 3-mile route in a large, screened funnel attached to the top of the truck. The captives are taken back to the District lab and analyzed in conjunction with weather data to determine where larvi- and adulticiding may be most needed.
Handled with Care
The wetlands in Lee County are among the most prolific breeding grounds for mosquitoes in Florida. Florida’s tourist industry and continuing development depend heavily upon mosquito control, but the goal of the LCMCD is not merely to make life here more comfortable; it is to ensure our survival here.
To do so, the LCMCD must handle its mission with care, safeguarding not only human health through disease control, but at the same time protecting the health of our habitat, the animals who coexist with us in it, and our agriculture. The Lee County Mosquito Control District is acutely sensitive to this responsibility and is faithful to the complex framework of federal, state and local regulations that govern its activities.
The Good Ole Days
Ah, but for the good ole days of the 1950s and ‘60s, when those WWII planes WHOOMED across the rooftops in clouds of oily smoke, scaring drivers into roadside ditches, of the days when kids delighted in chasing the mosquito control trucks through their neighborhoods, dancing and screaming around in the deliciously stinking, roiling nirvana of DDT. Methods today are safer to humans but no less deadly to mosquitoes, and it’s kind of cool to know that as we sleep, when the pupae of these mothering little culicinae whine into adult, blood-seeking drones, LCMCD is there to meet them, triumphantly airborne in really big flying machines.