If you woke in the wee hours of Friday morning and saw a low-flying, two-engine plane blanketing the sky with an ominous mist, don't worry.
Skeeter season is upon us, and that was just Broward County Mosquito Control doing its job.
While the fancy folks down in Key West are kicking around the idea of releasing genetically modified mosquitoes -- as detailed in this week's cover story
-- the much lower-budgeted Broward Mosquito Control is using seemingly far less sophisticated technologies.
For instance, they're making biologists stand in fields and count how many mosquitoes land on them. Seriously.
Although it sounds like the worst task ever, standing in a field and counting mosquitoes that land on you is a pretty reliable way to determine if there are enough out there to warrant spraying with a plane.
"Some of our biologists will go out to a field and count how many land on them per minute," says Joseph Marhefka of the Broward County Mosquito Control Section. "If you get more than five per minute, that's a threshold indicating that you can treat the area by plane or truck."
It's not the only method for counting mosquitoes, though. Broward, like the Keys, sets numerous traps to help monitor levels. If the folks in Broward see a threefold jump in the number of mosquitoes trapped, they know it's time to go ahead and blast the area with an adulticide, a chemical treatment that kills adult mosquitoes. Some are derived from chrysanthemum flowers, and some are stronger than others.
Marhefka says the one used Friday is relatively harmless to humans, though doing it between 4 and 6:30 a.m helps cut down on human contact with the chemical. One probably doesn't want to be sucking in mouthfuls of the mist, but the ultraviolet rays from the sun break it down quickly without leaving behind any residue.
Friday's spraying is in response to the heavy rains over the past two weeks. For perspective, Broward has only one airplane for aerial runs and a staff of 15; Keys Mosquito Control
operates a fleet of four helicopters, two planes, 18 full-time inspectors, and a 2011 operating budget of roughly $11 million.
"We're going after the floodwater mosquitoes," Marhefka says. "We're getting a lot of complaints."
And no, Marhefka says he can't predict whether it's going to be a bad year for mosquitoes despite hordes of annoying journalists constantly asking the question. The best indicator is rainfall, and there's been plenty of that so far.
"We're getting heavier rainfalls earlier in the year," he says. "If it keep up this way, it seems likely we'll have a heavy season."