First a drought. Then lots of rain in January and February. And now, as the Houston Chronicle recently reported, the Houston metropolitan area, including Fort Bend County, is now seeing an influx of mosquitoes. Reporter Lomi Kriel reports:
Those nasty blood-sucking creatures that make Houston the mosquito capital of Texas have invaded the region in far greater numbers and much earlier than usual this year, buoyed by recent rains and unseasonably high temperatures. In other words, Houstonians, brace yourselves and stock up on insect repellent. An especially itchy and uncomfortable spring looms.
In Fort Bend County, for instance, inspectors are finding up to 200 mosquitoes in some traps, compared with the dozen or so that is typical for February. In Galveston County, inspectors are counting about 80 mosquitoes a minute between their belts and ankles. (A normal measure is about 20.) And in Harris County, officials trapped nearly double the amount of mosquitoes – 9,775 – this February as compared with last year.
“I have a feeling there’s going to be a more severe outbreak than we normally see,” said Jim Ryan, Brazoria County’s mosquito control director. Why is nature being so cruel? For one, Houston had the eighth-wettest February on record, with nearly 6 inches of rainfall measured at the airport last month – a stark contrast to 2011’s seemingly never-ending dry spell.
Houston has recorded more than 11 inches of rain so far this year – as much as during the first nine months of 2011. Culminating in the perfect breeding ground for mosquito mania, February has also been about 3.5 degrees warmer than usual, with an average temperature of 60.1 degrees recorded at the airport. In mosquito speak, last year’s drought conditions meant fewer babies. Many mosquito eggs couldn’t hatch because it was too dry. Jim Dennett, a Harris County mosquito control research manager, explained: “A little bit of dirt and water, add an egg, and instant mosquito.
“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “I’ve found them in bottle caps. But all mosquitoes require at least some water for development.”
Yet mosquito eggs, the epitome of resilience, can survive in drainage ditches or other dark, warm patches for years until enough water builds up. Thus last month’s rains unleashed millions, adding to an already crowded landscape. The warm winter meant that Houston’s existing mosquito pool wasn’t decimated as thoroughly as nature decrees.
“Basically, we’re coming out with a net surplus in February,” said Raleigh Jenkins, owner of ABC Home and Commercial Services, one of Houston’s largest pesticide companies. “It is, as one would say, a bumper crop.” For businessmen like Jenkins, this is good news, particularly after last year’s relatively low mosquito activity during the drought.
“We’re making up for it,” he said.
His company typically doesn’t run advertisements for misting or other mosquito abatement systems until late March, he said, and a mosquito-related call is rare. But this February, Jenkins was getting 10 to 15 calls a day. For everyone else, however, it’s a pain. John Marshall, Galveston County’s director of mosquito control, said his inspectors have already been spraying for three weeks. Last year, they only began spraying in earnest in August.
In Brazoria County, officials simply never stopped, continuing through the winter – only the third time in 12 years that officials said they had such a high level of activity at this time of year. Other than being a nuisance, some mosquito species can pose a health risk, carrying St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile virus, both of which can be fatal. But officials said those diseases are mainly found in the Culex species. Most of the mosquitoes recently unleashed are floodwater mosquitoes, which don’t carry the diseases.
Statewide, no mosquitoes have tested positive for West Nile or other diseases since the middle of November, a Texas Department of State Health Services spokesman said. Meanwhile, across town, the Sugar Land Skeeters, the city’s new professional baseball team, are preparing for their inaugural season in April. Might one consider the great mosquito invasion of 2012 a lucky omen?
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Bryan Hodge, a spokesman. “Yes, our mascot is the skeeter … but we’re not a fan of the mosquito.”