April 22, 2005

Parts of the South Hit by Mosquito Surge

ALBANY, Ga. (AP) -- Heavy rain and warmer temperatures have unleashed swarms of hungry mosquitos in parts of south Georgia and northern Florida, and mosquito-control crews are gearing up for an onslaught of the bloodsucking pests in other parts of the South.

Besides tormenting humans and animals with their painful, itching bites, mosquitos raise health concerns because some transmit West Nile virus and other deadly diseases.

Elmer Gray, a University of Georgia entomologist in Athens, said some mosquito eggs can remain dormant in the soil for months until conditions are right for hatching.

"The heavy rains have set them up for large populations of mosquitos," he said.

While people in south Georgia and northern Florida spray repellents, swat and possibly curse, residents of north Georgia and South Carolina have been spared early outbreaks.

Donell Mathis, environmental control manager for southwest Georgia's Dougherty County, said his crews began fighting mosquitos a month earlier than usual because of heavy rain last month that created ideal breeding conditions.

"We've been getting a lot of calls," said Mathis, while driving through subdivisions on the edge of forests that have turned into swamps. "We have our work cut out for us."

Mathis and the county's four other mosquito control specialists have been working six days a week since April 1.

They collect water samples from ditches and flooded lowlands to check for mosquito larvae so that they can apply chemicals that kill them before they hatch. They spray neighborhoods from sundown to midnight to kill adult mosquitos.

In between, Mathis speaks to school and civic groups to increase awareness.

"Education is the key," he said, noting that homeowners can play an important role in mosquito control just by eliminating standing water in yards.

Bob Betts, chief of the Escambia County Mosquito Control Division in Pensacola, Fla., said his area is plagued by unusually large numbers of floodwater mosquitos and brown salt-marsh mosquitos. The Pensacola area has had 30 inches of rain, 14 inches over two days, in the past few weeks, he said.

"Rainfall is a big factor as far as mosquito production," he said. "But we can handle it with our equipment."

Matthew Smith, an entomologist with the Mobile County Health Department in Alabama, said there's been no unusual activity so far, but he expects a surge of complaints with the arrival of warmer weather.

"We're doing pretty well because we've been aggressively treating the flood water areas before they get started," he said. "But it's shaping up for some pretty heavy mosquito activity."

Henry Lewandowski Jr., director of Chatham County Mosquito Control in Savannah, said it's been a typical year so far, but the heavy rain and warmer temperatures could soon bring more mosquitos out.

Chatham County has 38 species, including some that grow in the salt marshes along the coast and some that thrive in urban areas.

L.A. Williams, a mosquito control specialist with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, said his state has been spared early outbreaks because of dry weather and cool temperatures.

There likely will be no immediate relief for north Florida and south Georgia residents because mosquito conditions are ideal, said Paul Efird, who sells mosquito control chemicals and helps calibrate spraying equipment in both states.

"A lot of the districts I talk to have started spraying earlier than usual," he said.

While Efird tested equipment, Mathis received a report on his radio about a mosquito-stressed homeowner. He tries to visit callers promptly and is so serious about his calling that an Albany newspaper referred to him as "The Terminator."

"We try to make people as comfortable as possible," said Mathis, who sometimes wades into swamps wearing chaps and snake boots to spread larvicide. "This is not a job just anybody could do."


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