For cen­turies, Florida’s mos­quito prob­lem a tough itch to scratch

Pro­fes­sor’s book de­tails long war against in­sect

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Gabrielle Calise

TAMPA — Bat­tling the winged beasts be­fore mod­ern meth­ods wasn’t easy. Des­per­ate early Florid­i­ans tried ev­ery­thing, from slather­ing their bod­ies in lumps of bear fat to burn­ing oily rags. In­dige­nous peo­ple avoided man­grove trees, where mos­qui­toes breed in the sum­mer­time and used nets to cover up.

Spaniards hid from the hun­gry skeeters un­der their ar­mor as they trudged through the marshes.

That was just the be­gin­ning. A mis­sion­ary sent to the Bis­cayne Bay area in the 1580s pro­vided early ev­i­dence of the itchy hellscape that was early Florida.

“He wrote back to his fa­ther su­pe­rior that he would do any

thing to get out of this pes­tif­er­ous place,” said Gor­don Pat­ter­son, a pro­fes­sor at the Florida In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and an ex­pert on the his­tory of mos­qui­toes in Florida. “‘Give me thieves, scoundrels, mur­der­ers, but these mos­qui­toes are more than I can tol­er­ate.’ ”

Jonathan Dick­in­son was ship­wrecked near Jupiter in the 1600s, Pat­ter­son said. A book of his ac­count de­scribes the na­tive peo­ple sur­round­ing them­selves in clouds of smoke and bury­ing them­selves in the sand for pro­tec­tion. His jour­nals lamented about hard nights try­ing to sleep among the bit­ing.

The crea­tures weren’t just an­noy­ing — they were deadly.

“Hordes of mos­qui­toes suf­fo­cated cat­tle and drove hu­mans to sui­cide,” reads the for­ward of Pat­ter­son’s book, “The Mos­quito Wars.”

Dengue and yel­low fever epi­demics slammed Florida in the 1700s. In the last 20 years of the cen­tury, dis­ease-har­bor­ing mos­qui­toes killed more hu­man be­ings than any other an­i­mal on this planet, Pat­ter­son said.

Yel­low fever caused so many to fall ill or die that in 1888 the State Board of Health was formed a year later. The board’s first leader? An ex­pert in mos­qui­toes.

Florid­i­ans tried to hide from mos­qui­toes at night to avoid dis­eases. Ac­cord­ing to Times ar­chives, drain­ing projects and the build­ing boom of the 1920s helped to re­duce mos­qui­toes, es­pe­cially in Pinel­las.

“Dur­ing this cen­tury, de­vel­op­ers have de­stroyed 45 per­cent of the man­groves that once lined Tampa Bay and more than 75 per­cent of the for­est,” wrote Jeff Klinkenber­g for the then-St. Peters­burg Times in 1989. “The re­sult is less wildlife and fish, but the sil­ver lin­ing is fewer mos­qui­toes.”

The Florida Anti-Mos­quito As­so­ci­a­tion (now known as the Florida Mos­quito Con­trol As­so­ci­a­tion) was formed in the early 1920s. The lo­ca­tion of the

first meet­ing: In­dian River County, then called Mos­quito County.

Florida’s salt marshes were fan­tas­tic breed­ing grounds for two types of mos­qui­toes. One of the worst places in the state —if not the planet — was Sani­bel Is­land.

“Among en­to­mol­o­gists, Sani­bel was renowned as ‘the world’s great­est pest hell­hole,’ ” Pat­ter­son wrote in “Mos­quito Wars.” “Long­time Sani­bel res­i­dents were ac­cus­tomed to see­ing Pat Mur­phy, the is­land’s mail­man, driv­ing his route in the hottest sum­mer months ‘wrapped in Es­kimo cloth­ing and net­ting.”

Mos­quito con­trol ramped up in the 1940s, Pat­ter­son said. The USDA set up a “quasi-se­cret” lab­o­ra­tory on Paramour Street in Or­lando, where re­searchers ex­per­i­mented with new in­sec­ti­cides that would pro­tect the Al­lied troops fight­ing in malaria-rich ar­eas. The lab still ex­ists to­day but is lo­cated in Gainesvill­e.

Shortly after this time, mass spray­ing of the chem­i­cal DDT took off in thou­sands of homes.

Ac­cord­ing to “Mos­quito Wars,” the United States Pub­lic Health Ser­vice even hired Walt Dis­ney’s artists to spread the word about malaria and mos­quito de­fenses. One car­toon fea­tured the seven dwarves as mos­quito work­ers who sprayed the chem­i­cal. “The Winged Scourge” played in movie the­aters across the state ahead of the main show.

Around this time in

Tampa, Boy Scouts led marches and launched ed­u­ca­tional mos­quito con­trol cam­paigns. Children po­liced the streets to drain empty cans and other col­lec­tors of still water.

“School­child­ren in Tampa put on plays where they dressed up like mos­qui­toes,” Pat­ter­son said. “Tampa played a ma­jor role in that story.”

The United States Of­fice of Malaria Con­trol in War Ar­eas and United States Pub­lic Health Ser­vice even pro­duced a short film in 1945 show­ing the scouts try­ing to pre­vent dengue and yel­low fever around the city.

Mos­qui­toes were still so bad on the space coast that they held up rocket launches at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter in the ’50s.

Mos­quito re­search has taught us a lot. We know that only the egg-lay­ing fe­males bite us and that pests are drawn to us be­cause of the car­bon diox­ide in our breath, lac­tic acid com­ing off our skin and the dirty odor of our feet. We also know that women, tall peo­ple, and folks wear­ing dark cloth­ing are more likely to be bit.

Mod­ern mos­quito con­trol has come a long way, too. DDT, later found to cause harm to the en­vi­ron­ment, wildlife and even po­ten­tially hu­mans, was banned.

There are now over 50 mos­quito con­trol agen­cies across Florida.


In this 1956 photo, a net is placed over a baby’s crib to pro­tect it against mos­qui­toes in St. Peters­burg.

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