Warm and wet: Skeeters enjoying weather

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2004

If it you've spent any time outside this spring and have felt that there's just more mosquitoes than there ought to be in any given year, well, you're right. As it turns out, there's two or three seasons' worth of some species of those pesky little insects buzzing about right now.

Janice Chumley, an integrated pest management technician at the Soldotna office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, said the conditions on the peninsula this spring a good snowfall and a wet spring have been just what mosquitoes, or more specifically, their eggs, have been waiting for for the past couple of years.

"The last two years were very dry, with minimal snowfall. This year, we had sufficient snowcover and a wet spring," Chumley said. "All those mosquito eggs that have been dormant for the past two seasons ... when climatic conditions are right, bingo! you wind up having high populations of mosquitoes."

Chumley said there are more than 20 species of mosquitoes in Alaska, and they overwinter in a variety of different ways. In some species, the adult females overwinter. In others, the insects overwinter as larvae. In still others, the eggs will lay dormant over a winter or longer until conditions are ripe for hatching.

"They can just sit there for two or three years, waiting for the right climate change to happen. ... Being able to stay dormant for that long is a pretty amazing thing," Chumley said.

Mosquitoes do serve a purpose, filling a link in the food chain. Aquatic birds and fish feed on mosquito eggs and larvae while adult mosquitoes are a food source for critters ranging from dragonflies to swallows to bats. Mosquitoes also play a role in plant pollination as nectar is a main source of their food.

Humans, however, generally try to avoid becoming part of that food chain and have devised quite a few ways to keep mosquitoes away.

Alan Reitter at Wilderness Way Outfitters in Soldotna said the store has been selling plenty of insect repellent this year.

"We are selling lots of bug stuff," Reitter said.

Many insect repellents contain a product called DEET, short for N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide. Reitter said there's a wide variety of DEET products to choose from Ben's 100 is one of the more well-known brands, while a product manufactured by 3M for the military called Ultrathon has been selling well as well several different ways to apply the product, such as pumps, aerosol sprays and lotions.

Reitter said that some products even come packaged with a lotion and an aerosol; the lotion is applied to the skin while the aerosol is used to apply repellent to clothing.

A number of DEET-free products also are available, as are products containing natural repellents such as citronella.

Reitter said a variety of head nets also are available, his favorite being the Bug Cap, a ballcap featuring a bug net built into a pocket on the bill and bungee cords to keep the netting tight against the wearer's chest and back.

Reitter also suggested wearing light-colored clothing and avoiding sweet perfumes.

"There are actually bugs up here that will bother you a whole lot more than mosquitoes," Reitter said, adding that insects like sweat bees and hornets can be attracted to perfume.

Chumley said any repellent should be used with caution.

"DEET is not something you can apply that liberally without damage, so you need to read the label, especially with young children," Chumley said.

Chumley said homeowners can take steps to reduce mosquitoes in their yards by getting rid of any standing water bird baths, tires, buckets, watering cans, even tarps can collect water.

"Any kind of depression that can hold water for a while," Chumley said.

Chumley also said people need to know that applying a mosquito control product to water requires a permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation, a requirement of which many people are not aware, she said.

Chumley said she has had some inquiries about West Nile virus. The Centers for Disease Control reported 9,862 human cases of West Nile virus last year, with 264 of them resulting in deaths.

The Alaska Division of Public Health Section of Epidemiology, "found no evidence of local existence or transmission of (West Nile virus)" after testing of humans, birds and mosquitoes in 2003, as was reported in a bulletin last November. The Section of Epidemiology will continue to watch for the virus this year, and Chumley said public awareness was a good thing.

"People are fairly aware that West Nile is probably going to get up to Alaska at some point in time," Chumley said.

For more information on mosquitoes, Chumley suggested calling the Cooperative Extension Service office at 262-5824 or visiting the state Department of Environmental Conservation Web site at www.state.ak.us/dec/.

For those people hoping to venture outside in the near future without slapping themselves silly, Chumley said the density of the current crop of mosquitoes would begin to lessen as their life cycles played out, but added that, this being Alaska, there will always be some mosquitoes out and about during the summer months.

"It's all environmentally produced. If we have a lot of rain and it stays warm, we'll have a lot more hatchouts," Chumley said.

And her plan to cope in the outdoors?

"I'll just dress accordingly and slap at will," she said.

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