Josh Shaffer

With springtime, skeeters come to the Triangle. And maybe Zika

This 2006 photograph depicted a female Aedes aegypti mosquito while she was in the process of acquiring a blood meal from her human host. The mosquito is a primary transmitter of the Zika virus.
This 2006 photograph depicted a female Aedes aegypti mosquito while she was in the process of acquiring a blood meal from her human host. The mosquito is a primary transmitter of the Zika virus. Raleigh

As the dogwoods bloom and the robins bob across our lawns, we in Raleigh brace ourselves for a pastime more time-honored than tomato gardens and spring hats:

Mosquito dread.

And this year, with the Zika virus threatening to creep into the Southeast, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sizing up the risk as “scarier than we thought,” pest control companies are clanging the alarm bell.

In its email to customers, The Mosquito Authority calls spraying “particularly important” given Zika concerns. The news can be “overwhelming and scary,” warns another ad, “but with help from the CDC, Mosquito Joe is here to help.”

Banner headlines over Zika coincide with the beginning of mosquito spraying season, and the pest people all report an uptick in their business. Not a mad rush, not a frenzy, but definitely a bump.

So even though it sounds like paranoia – this year’s Ebola, West Nile, swine flu – I will likely spend some cash coating the backyard with pyrethroids. It’s just chrysanthemum juice, right? Wikipedia says it’s OK. And if that’s too potent, we mosquito-haters can always opt for garlic spray.

“We try not to use any kind of scare tactics,” said Tom Ramoino, a Mosquito Joe franchisee in the Triangle. “We’re very, very good at killing mosquitoes.”

The Zika virus has not yet been found in mosquitoes in the continental United States, but North Carolina falls within the CDC’s map showing the territory of the two types of skeeters that are capable of carrying the virus: Aedes aegypti (known as the yellow fever mosquito) and Aedes albopictus (the tiger mosquito). So far, the only cases of Zika in the U.S. were acquired by people who traveled to areas where the virus is present in mosquitoes, such as Central and South America and the Caribbean.

While public health officials initially shrugged at Zika possibilities, in recent days, they have ramped up their warnings, especially for pregnant women, noting the chance for birth defects spurred on by virus-laden bites. They note, however, that most people exposed to Zika won’t even notice a difference, and that fevers, rashes and joint pains that develop tend to be mild.

As the hand-wringing begins, mosquito season swings into its opening days of arm-swatting irritation. And I’m told by Kevin Hathorne, a technical director for Terminix, that we didn’t have enough freezing weather over the winter to knock them into a springtime daze. Rather, as wet as it’s been, we should expect a summer-long buzz.

“It’s necessary for us to come every month,” Hathorne said. “One treatment gives you a knockdown that lasts about 30 days. It has a cumulative effect that gets better and better throughout the year.”

I’ve never been especially comfortable spraying anything that kills. I’m the sort of bleeding heart who carries spiders and earwigs outside rather than swat them when they show up in the bathtub. But everywhere I look, including the Centers for Disease Control, says toxicity of pyrethroids is low as long as you’re not exposed to lots of it over long periods of time. The EPA says these sprays aren’t risky to children or adults, and the only real concern it mentions is large-scale runoff into streams and ponds.

I found this hilarious but nonetheless cogent warning about ground that has been recently sprayed: “Some children eat a lot of dirt. You should discourage your children from eating dirt.”

At any rate, there’s also an all-natural garlic spray that repels rather than eliminates bugs. It also, I’m guessing, wards off vampires, which haven’t been officially listed as a Zika risk yet. But you can’t be too safe.

How to reduce your mosquito risk

1. Reduce mosquito breeding opportunities by emptying standing water from flowerpots, gutters, buckets, pool covers, pet water dishes, discarded tires and birdbaths at least weekly.

2. Tightly secure screens on all openings on rain barrels used for water conservation.

3. Clean up any trash or leaves that may be around your home or in rain gutters.

4. Use mosquito repellent that contains DEET (or equivalent) on exposed skin and wear clothing treated with permethrin, a synthetic pyrethroid insecticide.

5. Mosquito-proof your home by installing or repairing screens on windows and doors to keep mosquitoes outside, and use air conditioning if you have it.

Source: N.C. Department of Health and Human Services