By now, many homeowners in the Charleston area have seen workers dressed in protective clothing and masks with leafblower-like machines shooting a fine mist into yards, bushes and flower beds.
Within the past decade, commercial mosquito control businesses have mushroomed in the area and are flourishing, despite the presence of long-established, taxpayer-funded county abatement programs.
More than a half dozen businesses are marketed primarily on this biting, blood-sucking family of flies, but other more general pest control companies are getting in on the action as well.
David Scully, owner and operator of Mosquito Joe in Wando, decided to “scratch his entrepreneurial itch” last fall and open a local franchise, which is based in Virginia Beach, Va.
After a colder-than-usual winter and a consistently wet May, the pattern of heavy rains followed by dry and hot conditions have led to the first serious “hatch-outs,” and his phone has been ringing off the hook this month.
Scully says most calls are coming from homeowners, but others seeking help include a range of businesses such as outdoor patio areas at restaurants and special events including weddings and receptions.
Web sites of local mosquito control businesses vary in the amount of information they provide about the chemical insecticides in their mists, sprays and granules.
Most contain pyrethrins and pyrethroids, the latter of which are formulated with synergists, such as piperonyl butoxide and MGX-264, which the Environmental Protection Agency says “enhance the pesticidal properties of the product.”
The EPA describes pyrethrhins as “botanical insecticides derived from chrysanthemum flowers most commonly found in Australia and Africa. They work by altering nerve function, which causes paralysis in target insect pests, eventually resulting in death.”
“Pyrethroids are synthetic chemical insecticides whose chemical structures are adapted from the chemical structures of the pyrethrins and act in a similar manner to pyrethrins. Pyrethroids are modified to increase their stability in sunlight.”
Among the latter, the EPA says, some synthetic pyrethroids include Permethrin, resmethrin, and d-phenothrin (brand name of Sumithrin), which are all commonly used in mosquito-control programs to kill adult mosquitoes.
“Permethrin is the most widely used mosquito (adult insecticide) in the U.S. and is used to treat 9 to 10 million acres annually,” the EPA website says.
Considering the national attention paid to mass die-offs of honeybees and butterflies, such as the Monarch butterflies, largely due to pesticides, not much has been made on commercial applications of pesticides for mosquitoes on beneficial insects. Those beneficials include native bees, ladybugs and parasitic wasps, which help control agricultural pests.
Dr. John Weinstein, a biology professor at The Citadel with an expertise in environmental toxicology, says he’s not an expert on commercial mosquito control applications, but that any pesticide that attacks the nervous system of an insect would not discriminate between mosquitoes and beneficial insects.
“What’s killing the mosquitoes will kill other insects,” he says. “Using the products would affect anything (insect) exposed to them.”
Larry Haigh, president of the South Carolina Beekeepers Association, says most county mosquito control programs spray at night when bees are in hives. Public programs also contact beekeepers when the spraying will take place so that they can cover hives.
But most commercial operators work during the day time.
“If the spraying is done during the day, it’s definitely going to kill bees and other pollinators that come in contact with it (insecticides),” says Haigh.
Haigh says beekeepers haven’t raised much concern about the commercial mosquito spraying and misting because they are contending with other issues as well, such as other agricultural pesticide issues and varroa mites.
And while awareness of bees and other beneficial insects is increasing, Haigh adds that the some people have become “terrified of a mosquito bite ... and a lot of people don’t want anything (bugs, other animals) in their sterile environment” to bother them.
Zack Snipes, a Clemson Extension agent focusing on farming, thinks the public isn’t fully aware of the impact of the pesticides on pollinating insects, including native bees.
“Native bees are as important (as honeybees), or even more important, because they are pollinating native plants that we may not fully understand yet and could have benefits, such as a cure for cancer.”
With the kickoff of National Mosquito Control Awareness Week today, the risks of mosquitoes to the health of humans, pets and horses via mosquito-borne illnesses will be highlighted.
After all, mosquitoes are notorious for carrying diseases and viruses, including malaria, West Nile virus, dengue fever, Chikungunya, heartworms and eastern equine encephalitis.
And mosquitoes have been a big part of Charleston history. One of the primary reasons for the existence of Summerville was as a place for Charleston residents to go to escape the ravages of mosquitoes and their diseases during the summer before the advent of air conditioning and mosquito-control techniques.
Many locals who use commercial mosquito control companies trumpet the service.
Kris Price Pratt, in fact, installed an automated mosquito control system at her former home in Beresford Hall and at her new home at Daniel Island Park. The former cost $3,500 to install, which didn’t include the filling up of a tank with insecticide. She also has the yard at a rental home on Daniel Island sprayed every month to two months at $100 a pop.
“The mosquitoes (were) so bad, my kids could not even go out to play and one has bad allergic reactions where she swells and itches and ends up needing medication to clear. Kids come before bugs to me,” says Pratt.
While she says that butterflies and bees were still present at the Beresford Hall home, she did notice that the banana spiders disappeared “as we took their food supply.”
“But that’s fine by me. They were all over with huge webs. It was sick. ... I do not like spiders. “
On the Isle of Palms, resident Elaine Moore Ruddock Schupp says the mosquito problem was so bad that she worried about letting her Scottish terrier breed dogs go outside.
“The mosquito service has made our yard livable again,” she says.
At a home near The Citadel, Betsy Reves Sidebottom has had a mosquito service for three years. Her yard is sprayed for mosquitoes every three weeks, or about 10 times, every summer at a cost of about $600 total, though she gets a $25 credit for referring a customer to the service.
“Without their service, we would not be able to be outside. They have changed our summers and with three small kids, it’s imperative to be able to be outside,” says Sidebottom.
She didn’t consider the impact of commercial mosquito control on beneficial insects but echoed Pratt’s sentiment.
“Selfishly, the service is worth it even if other insects are killed,” says Sidebottom. “With small children, we didn’t want to use ‘harmful’ bug sprays on their skin, so we opt for the mosquito spray.”
Not all share that sentiment.
Jeremiah Jimerson moved his family to Wadmalaw Island, in part to escape “people spraying insecticides, fungicides and herbicides” on yards. He questions the impact of the cumulative effect of chemicals on human health.
“I would rather suffer and get eaten (by mosquitoes),” he says.
Mosquitoes in the Charleston area would be intolerable if it weren’t for local government programs, such as the Charleston County Mosquito Control Division, which has 26 staffers, nine spray trucks, two spraying helicopters and contracts with spraying planes.
Assistant Manager Brian Hayes says crews actively monitor and manage major mosquito breeding grounds, such as the spoil area of Drum Island between Mount Pleasant and Charleston, as well as respond to individual complaints in neighborhoods.
Spoil areas are prone to mosquito breeding because when the dredged-up material dries, it cracks and provides an ideal location for female mosquitoes to lay eggs.
Hayes says the annual budget for the program runs about $3 million a year. Typically, crews stay busy from March to October and spray between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., not only to avoid people but because chemicals work better when it’s not as hot.
“We’re always trying to stay one step ahead of the game,” says Hayes.
Hayes says there are nearly 60 species of mosquito in Charleston, including two types of salt marsh mosquitoes, sollicitans and taeniorhynchus, that can fly 20 to 30 miles from their hatching sites.
Container breeding mosquitoes, he adds, are more localized, not flying more than 100 yards away.
While Hayes says any spraying will help, homeowners always have the option to call the county’s program for a field inspection and get advice or treatment for their problem.
“Let us know. We’re always out there anyway,” says Hayes.