Florida budget cuts, mosquito burst create itchy issue

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla Fri Jul 15, 2011 4:48pm EDT

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla (Reuters) - James David's job of controlling mosquitoes in a part of Florida that Spanish explorers once dubbed "Los Mosquitos" is often futile.

But this year, the fight "feels like a sort of hand-to-hand combat," said David, the mosquito control and coastal services director for St. Lucie County in southeast Florida.

In the past two years, David's local government has cut 42 percent of mosquito control funding and a quarter of his staff. This year, the state slashed its contribution to local mosquito control by half.

Just weeks ago, with a line-item veto, Republican Governor Rick Scott closed a university mosquito lab that David had relied on for pesticide research.

All this comes as most local mosquito control officials agree the mosquito situation is the worst they have seen since 1998, when El Nino caused rampant rains and the pesky insects that come with them, said Shelly Redovan, executive director of the Florida Mosquito Control Association.

"It's a bad mosquito year," Redovan said. "And when you've also got reduced funding, it's going to be tough."

Florida's depressed property values and high foreclosure rates have left the state with fewer tax dollars to spend, and nearly every facet of public life has been touched as lawmakers try to pay the state's bills.

Yet effective management of mosquitoes has been so closely linked to the state's prosperity that mosquito control officials fear they are victims of their own success.

"We should never, ever forget from where we've come," said Angela Weeks-Samanie, an environmental specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which administers the state mosquito control funds.

"In the blink of an eye, we could go back to where we were when Florida was uninhabitable."

SLEEPING ON THE BEACH

Mosquitoes have been part of the state's recorded history since the arrival of the first European settlers. The Spanish, French and English all recounted tales of sleeping on the beach, covered in sand, to escape them.

When Florida was being considered for statehood, U.S. congressmen debated whether mosquitoes would prevent it from ever being a suitable place to live.

Mosquito-spread Yellow Fever broke out in the 1870s and 1880s in pockets throughout Florida -- including Jacksonville, Tampa, Key West and the Panhandle -- and led to the formation of the State Board of Health in 1889.

More recently, the insects have been common perpetrators in disease outbreaks, such as in the early 2000s, when West Nile virus was spreading in Florida, and in 2010, with dengue fever in the Florida Keys.

This year, the mosquitoes seem to be hitting coastal areas hardest. Lee County, which includes Fort Myers in southwest Florida, set a record in May for the number of mosquito complaints.

One day that month, the county received 457 calls from citizens.

Meanwhile, the Orlando area farther inland is seeing mosquito numbers that are similar to last year's.

The most likely reason: This year's troublemakers appear to be floodwater mosquitoes, which thrive in different conditions than the species that lay eggs in standing water.

"Floodwater mosquitoes lay their eggs above the high-tide line, where it's dry," said Roxanne Connelly, president of the state Mosquito Control Association and an associate professor of entomology at the University of Florida.

Several months of dry conditions followed by heavy rainfall created ideal conditions for this species, she said.

"Then, sometime later, when you get a high tide or some other influence, they all hatch at the same time," she said. "They become adults at the same time. And they're all looking for blood at the same time."

In one three-acre salt marsh in St. Lucie County, David found mosquito larvae packed so tightly that 1 million were squeezed into an area the size of a pickup truck bed.

Spraying with heavy equipment was ineffective because winds were strong. The pesticide he chose didn't work, so he changed chemicals twice.

"We were sending out hand crews over and over again at dusk and dawn, trying to spray by hand," David said. "We'd treat it; it would look like we got a great knockdown. And then, three hours later, it would be just as bad it was before."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Bohan)

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