Mosquito Joe chief technician Damien Ysasi on July 20 in Grand Rapids, Mich. sprays a mixture of essential oil insecticides in a yard in nearby Cascade Township. As climate change expands the insect’s range and extends its prime season, more Americans are turning to blooming. professional destruction industry. (John Flesher, Associated Press)
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CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. — It’s an increasingly familiar sight in U.S. cities and suburbs: a van pulling up to the curb. Workers wearing gloves, masks, and other protective harnesses on backpack-style machinery with plastic hoses similar to leaf blowers.
Starting engines, they drench trees, bushes and even house walls with pesticides that target an old menace: mosquitoes.
Winged, clubbed bloodsuckers have long been the scourge of backyard barbecues and carriers of serious diseases in tropical countries. Now, as climate change expands the insect’s range and extends its prime season, more Americans are turning to the professional backyard spraying industry.
“If you like to be outside, it’s definitely nicer to not have to be swatting mosquitoes and worry about all that stuff,” said Marty Marino, a recent customer at a bedroom community near Grand Rapids in Cascade Township, Michigan.
But the chemical bombardment is starting to worry scientists, who fear that overuse of pesticides will harm pollinators and pose a growing threat to insect-eating birds.
“The stuff these companies spray kills all the bugs,” said Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health at George Washington University and a former assistant administrator for toxics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“It includes bees, butterflies, and maybe all kinds of beneficial insects that people don’t like, but should like,” Goldman said. “It’s not good to have these kinds of indiscriminate killings that upset the whole ecosystem.”
According to the journal Biological Conservation, more than 40% of insect species worldwide are threatened with extinction, including some pollinating bees and butterflies.
Spraying companies, overwhelmed by the growing demand, say they are trying to minimize pollinator losses, but admit there is collateral damage.
Mosquito Joe, who treats Marino and several neighbors’ yards on a humid July morning, avoids spraying on windy days when the poison blows onto flowering plants that attract bees, said Lou Schager, president of the Virginia Beach, Va.-based company.
“We need our dusters,” said David Price, the company’s director of technical services. “They are incredibly important. But at the same time, we have to eliminate the (carrier) mosquitoes.”
In 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a “dramatic” increase in diseases spread by mosquitoes and other blood feeders. Zika, Chikungunya, and West Nile viruses have emerged in the United States, and the Asian tiger and yellow fever mosquitoes that originated in the tropics are now common in the Southern states and have begun to affect Southern California.
Edward Walker, a professor of entomology at Michigan State University, said that with climate change, Michigan’s mosquito season is about a month longer at the start and end than it was a few decades ago, with warm-weather species becoming more abundant.
Meanwhile, according to the trade publication Pest Control Technology, revenues from mosquito repellents have soared. Exterminators are adding mosquitoes to their traditional services, and new companies are making mosquitoes their main focus.
Total industry totals were not available. But more than 70% of pest control companies surveyed last year offered the service, up from 38% in 2014. It generated about one-fifth of the company’s revenue in 2021.
The Zika outbreak, which began in 2015 and has spread to more than 80 countries, has helped boost business growth, said Daniel Markowski, technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, a 1,200-member nonprofit group.
“It was all over the media,” Markowski said, “and made a lot of pest control companies say, ‘Holy cow, I could make a lot of money with residential services.'”
Founded in 2010, Mosquito Joe’s now has 173 franchises in 39 states, Schager said.
Many companies use a “residual barrier” strategy by spraying a pesticide around the perimeter of the property, which usually lasts for several weeks. When mosquitoes settle on bushes or trees, they receive a lethal dose.
For yard treatments, companies typically use pyrethrins—insecticides produced by chrysanthemum flowers—or synthetic imitations called pyrethroids.
The federal government says the chemicals are safe for humans when used as directed and mostly non-toxic to birds. But they are deadly to fish and bees, and they harm birds indirectly by killing the insects they feed on, Goldman said.
The decline in North America’s 3 billion birds in recent decades has been largely composed of insectivores, from whippets to red-winged blackbirds and barn swallows.
The EPA says it is seeking more information on pollinator harm as part of its periodic review of pyrethrins and pyrethroids and may order labeling changes if necessary.
Critics also argue that homeowners are swayed by the company’s sales pitch when simple techniques like draining standing water sources and running electric fans keep mosquitoes away.
The Mosquito Control Association says companies should clean mosquito breeding areas first and spray only when an inspection indicates it is needed, rather than on a set schedule.
“If I’m doing my job, eventually you won’t need my mosquito service,” said Dan Killingsworth, director of operations for Environmental Protection Pest Control in Panama City Beach, Florida. “If I can get the mosquitoes on your property down to where they’re not a problem, we can potentially eliminate this service.”
Many companies don’t go that far, Markowski said. “They’ll just come out and spray your property and leave.”
Schager said his company limits insecticide use and typically sprays every three to four weeks, with regular treatments needed to break breeding cycles.
Marino, a homeowner in Michigan, says he’s trying an optional water spray mixed with “essential oils” from plants like garlic, lemongrass, peppermint and rosemary, which are less harmful to other insects. About 10% of Mosquito Joe’s customers use this option, Price said, although most prefer longer-acting pyrethroids.
He said the company charges about $90 for a treatment with pyrethroids, while oils are about 20% more expensive.
“One of our dogs likes to eat wood shavings from the landscaping,” Marino said. “If it has a synthetic insecticide on it, that’s a big concern.”
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