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Planes, Drones And Dry Ice: How South Florida Wages War Against Mosquitoes

Prioria Robotics / Prioria Robotics

At dusk during a hot Miami summer, when you’re outside getting chewed on by countless mosquitoes, it’s easy to wonder how anyone ever decided to settle in South Florida.

The mosquitoes, in fact, were so bad for some early South Floridians that they had rooms at the front of their frontier shacks called “losers,” which contained smudge pots and palmetto branches to literally “lose” all of the bugs from your body before entering.

In the 21st Century, we’ve got unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones – not unlike those deployed across the world for national security purposes  – are being considered for use through the Florida Keys looking for hotbeds of unruly bloodsucking activity.

The local and national media have been all over the story about the possible move by Florida Keys Mosquito Control to deploy UAVs in their fight against mosquitoes.

Director of the program Michael Doyle was somewhat taken aback by all of the coverage.

“We’re used to being innovative here, but I had no idea that a tool like this would create such an interest.” Doyle considers media coverage a “combination of people hating mosquitoes and loving drones.”

Doyle goes on to claim that that there has been more media attention in the rest of the world than in the Keys themselves. People don’t seem to be bothered by the idea of drones and suggests that, “everybody knows everybody down here so you’re probably related to the drone pilot.” And most of the work will be done in remote marshes anyway.

Various Control Methods

And drones aren't the only strange way that South Floridians fight mosquitoes. A lot of us take for granted that the incessant buzzing and biting of mosquitoes do not constantly intrude on our tropical lifestyle.

This year, according to the Miami Dade County Mosquito Control operations manager, Chalmers Vasquez, the numbers have been down, despite this season being more active for most parts of the South East. Vasquez has been fighting mosquitoes for 22 years.

They gauge the amount of mosquitoes in a few different ways, one of which is the amount of complaint calls received. To give you some perspective, in June of 2004 there were 10,000 complaint calls. In June of 2012, there were 5,000 complaint calls. This June, there were only 900 calls. This is a clear indicator that the bugs are less of a nuisance this year.

Chalmers Vasquez holds a light trap from the Centers for Disease Control.

The other way Vasquez and his team monitor the amount of mosquitoes are a series of light traps designed by the Centers for Disease Control. It’s effectively a cooler with dry ice in it (carbon dioxide attracts the bugs) attached to a light with a mosquito netting trap. It doesn’t look like much, but it gets the job done with 30 of them rigged all across the county. The traps are checked and counted once a week year round.

In 2004, which was a particularly brutal year, Vasquez found 45,000 mosquitoes in one of the traps alone. In the off-season there are half as many traps. They are meant to work in the same way as a person who's been outside all day.

Landing Rate Counts

The final and most bizarre way Miami Dade Mosquito Control gauges where to spray is through a practice called “landing rate counts.” The team sends a mosquito control employee three times a week to specific places and has the employee stand still and count the number of bugs that land on them. It's not very scientific, but it's an estimation and a direct evaluation of what’s happening on the ground.

There are approximately 49 mosquito species in Miami Dade, but only half a dozen that cause a nuisance to people. Vasquez and his team define mosquito season mostly by the number of mosquitoes the county receives from the two national parks (Biscayne National and Everglades National.) Season starts around ten days after the start of rainy season, giving the eggs time to hatch.

South Floridians definitely hate mosquitoes, but not just because they’re annoying. They also carry imported diseases such as West Nile Virus and dengue fever. The first locally transmitted case was reported in Miami just last week. Though the patient recovered, Vasquez and his team were on their way to check on the case after WLRN visited the facility.

Dispersal unit from truck

At his disposal, Vasquez has ten trucks, a helicopter and a plane on contract for aerial spraying if conditions are overwhelming.

Another little known fact is that the US Air Force has a mosquito control division that sometimes flies a C-130 military jet in a mutually beneficial relationship with Miami Dade County that's based on necessity. On an annual basis, Miami Dade provides the pesticides and the USAF provides the flight free of charge for their own training purposes. South Florida is one of four places in the country that provides these simulations.

Avoid Getting Bit

If you’re getting bit, there’s a few things to avoid in order to ward off mosquitoes. Sweating lactic acid, drinking beer and wearing dark colors are mosquito favorites. Others you may not be able to avoid, such as the carbon dioxide of your exhale. In your backyard, your bromeliad plant is a haven for the bugs, as are artificial containers that hold standing water, such as bird baths or old buckets. And the simple reality is that the body chemistry of certain people attracts mosquitoes. Some people are just more delicious to them. 

“The truth of the matter is we came where they are, and then we complain about them,” Vasquez laments. “That’s my job, to fight them. That’s our job, to keep them at bay,” said Vasquez, “and I believe they may have the upper hand. They really are prolific breeders.”

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.
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