Remember during that unseasonably mild winter, when you drummed your fingers on your un-mothballed deck chair and thought, "Dear Lord, the mosquitoes are going to be terrible this year"? Here's the good news: The balmy winter likely had little effect on this summer's mosquito population.
But don't toss those bottles of Skin So Soft just yet. Oh, there'll still be a vast and ravenous swarm of mosquitoes, estimated roughly between a bajillion and a buzzing black cloud obscuring the city skyline. But the main culprit won't be the relative lack of killing cold. It'll be the April showers that brought the spring flowers, and with them squadrons of man-eating pests.
"The mosquito population is based on rainfall," says Joe Conlon, technical adviser to the New Jersey-based American Mosquito Control Association. Standing water is the preferred hatchery for mosquito larvae, which mature in anywhere from five days to two weeks, depending on the species. It could be a pond, a puddle or a birdbath; it could be the bucket of rainwater turning green by the downspout.
And don't think just because the water dries up, the problem's solved. The vigorous and adaptable mosquito will not only lay its eggs in water, it will lay them somewhere it anticipates water will be — for example, in the cool mud of a dried-up pond that will fill during the next thunderstorm. Those eggs have evolved to withstand as much as years of drought, Conlon says, and one good rain can produce a bumper crop of newly hatched nuisances.
"They're like reincarnated lawyers," Conlon says.
Contrary to popular belief, Conlon explains, the mosquito's favorite meal isn't human blood but plant nectar. Only the female mosquito bites, he says, and it draws blood to obtain the protein needed for its eggs. Toward that end, the female employs two tubes as it plunges in its pointed proboscis: one that secretes saliva and anti-coagulants — the better to suck your blood, my dear — and the other for doing just that.
It's the anti-coagulant process that furthers the transmission of diseases such as the dreaded West Nile virus, which elevates the mosquito from an irritant to a threat. Within 24-72 hours after the blood meal, the mother will lay eggs — a process she will repeat often enough during her lifespan of a few weeks that one breeding couple can produce thousands of offspring. How do you fight an enemy capable of replenishing its ranks that rapidly?
The most effective weapon against mosquito larvae, Conlon says, is a mosquito dunk — a water-soluble washer-shaped disk laced with a bacteria that is toxic only to the developing mosquito. It's available at hardware stores for less than $20.
For fending off the adult variety, Conlon recommends three repellents that get the job done. In his career, Conlon says — which includes a 20-year stint in the Navy and another 10 years of field research — he has yet to find anything more effective than DEET, the chemical repellent that offers "a solid four hours of protection." Concerns about its toxicity are "grossly overblown," he says, adding that in all his years of using DEET the only mishaps he's seen came from flagrant misuse of the product. A synthetic pepper derivative called picaridin is practically as effective, he says, and doesn't have DEET's "plasticizing" effects on watches and other items.
But for those who want to avoid chemicals altogether, Conlon recommends oil of lemon eucalyptus, the most effective of the many plant oils (including horehound, garlic and clove) proven to repel mosquitoes. The problem with using such oils, he cautions, is twofold: They disperse quickly and offer short-lived protection — unless they're applied in a form so undiluted that, like oil of clove, they cause skin irritation that makes a mosquito bite feel like a blown kiss. As for the bites themselves, Conlon suggests plain old Benadryl.
At times, Conlon seems to describe his lifelong foe with grudging respect, like Sherlock Holmes tipping his deerstalker to the wily Moriarty. Asked if there's anything good about this most obnoxious of summer pests, however, the veteran mosquito fighter just laughs.
"They provide me gainful employment," Conlon says. "They keep me from having to eat out of a Dumpster."
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