Garden Plot: Let’s talk mosquito prevention

WASHINGTON — Zika is the new mosquito-borne virus to fear, and with the arrival of warmer weather we’ll see old favorites such as West Nile, too. But you can greatly diminish the number of mosquitoes that could plague your backyard this summer by taking action now.

If you bring down the numbers of the first couple of generations, math will be on your side for a change. They’ll still grow exponentially, but if their numbers are in the twenties as opposed to the thousands, you’re on your way to a sting-free summer.

To start, clean up any trash in your yard. Mosquitoes can breed in bottle caps, plastic bags and other places you might not expect.

Emptying standing water is no longer enough!

Rutgers entomologist Dr. Dina Fonseca explained to me that this is the perfect time to begin limiting or even preventing mosquito problems near your home by interrupting their breeding cycle. But to do that, she says, you need to know that there are two types of mosquitoes in our region. The more recent arrival, the day-flying Asian ‘tiger mosquito’ (Aedes), has a very different life cycle than the ‘old friends’ we’re used to.

These biters overwinter in the egg stage, but those eggs aren’t floating on the surface of standing water. They’re attached to the sides of the water-holding objects, ready to be activated when the weather warms and the water level rises after a rainfall.

So just dumping out wheelbarrows, recycling bins, children’s toys and the like isn’t enough with these terrors. You also have to scrub the eggs off of any items that can hold water to destroy them. And then, of course, make sure those containers stay dry.

Getting rid of old-school water breeders

The Culex mosquitoes we all grew up with — the ones that mostly bite when day changes over into evening — are already among us. The last females of summer hibernate in sheds, garages and other protected areas. They’ll emerge on the first nice day looking for a blood meal, then seek out standing water in which to lay their eggs. The old advice was to dump any water on your property to deny the mosquitoes that breeding ground, and that’s still excellent advice. But now there’s a new twist on that advice that uses water against them.

BTI, the active ingredient in mosquito dunks and granules, prevents those eggs from becoming biting adults. So if you deliberately put out standing water laced with BTI, the females will lay their eggs in the water but no new mosquitoes will be born.

BTI (a naturally occurring soil-dwelling organism) is non-toxic to other creatures; it has no effect on fish, birds, pets, people, toads, or other such living things. The biggest brand name you’ll find at retail stores is Summit. They offer a wide array of formulas. The mail-order firm Gardens Alive sells BTI in granular form as “No-Squito” (which, they tell me, is supposed to rhyme with ‘mosquito’) .

Don’t forget your own flowers!

Dr. Fonseca told me something I had not previously known about mosquito behavior: Early in the spring, biting females, who we tend to think of only as blood suckers, feed on the nectar of small-flowered plants for energy. But those are the exact same kinds of plants skilled gardeners use to lure pollinators and beneficial insects to their backyards! The answer? Once again, BTI traps.

Place small containers of water near your earliest-blooming flowers, treat the water with BTI and the females who visit the flowers will lay their eggs in this convenient water source, but no adult mosquitoes will emerge!

Let’s review:

  • Empty and scrub plant saucers, outdoor children’s toys, recycling bins; anything that can hold water.
  • Don’t let those containers fill up with water again!
  • Clean up any small trash in the yard. One of Dr. Fonseca’s colleagues found that the Aedes mosquito can go from egg to adult using the amount of water in a bottle cap!
  • Put containers of water laced with BTI around your home and freshen up the BTI as directed.
  • Make sure some of those traps are near early-blooming flowers.
  • And if you have gutters, clean them out as well. They don’t even have to be clogged to be dangerous; just a low spot that doesn’t drain well can breed these ancient disease-carrying enemies of mankind.

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