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SALT LAKE CITY — It's that time of year again, except it is actually two or three weeks earlier than when those pesky mosquitoes made their presence known last year.
Abatement crews have already started making the rounds, to rid standing water at the outskirts of town of abundant mosquito larvae. They're working to keep populations lower than anticipated, but the unusually warm weather has put a hurry on things.
"The type of mosquitoes, the numbers and where we're finding them, I wouldn't have expected this until about mid-May," said Sammie Dickson, manager of the Salt Lake City Mosquito Abatement District. During his nearly 35 years at the district, he said he's never seen planes go up to spray in the month of April.
If the weather allows on Friday, small planes are scheduled to be dropping bacteria-coated, ground-up corn cobs over pools of water north of the airport. Dickson said the cobs help to distribute the bacteria, which then gets ingested by mosquito larvae, resulting in their deaths. About seven pounds per acre will do the trick.
"If we do a good job and get it to them so they have plenty to eat, we won't see so many mosquitoes," he said.
If by chance a mosquito survives, it exits the water and immediately seeks a mate. It then goes in search of a nectar source for sugar energy, or will look for a blood meal. Dickson said grazing cattle and nesting birds often become the first victims of newly hatched mosquitoes. From there, they move along areas of high humidity — along the Jordan River or irrigation canals — flying up to a mile each day for a blood meal.
"If they encounter a blood source along the way, they'll take it," Dickson said, pointing out that the Rose Park Golf Course is right along the path, and usually contains plenty of offerings for hungry mosquitoes.
While they may be plentiful, these early mosquitoes don't likely carry any disease, alleviating worry for the health department. It isn't until the first week of June when West Nile virus will become a threat.
"We definitely don't want people to stop going outdoors and enjoying activities they love out there, but we want them to be prepared," said JoDee Baker, epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health. She said insect repellent containing DEET should be worn any time an individual is outdoors between dusk and dawn.
"It is safe for everybody, even on kids 6 months or older," she said. "It is safe and very effective."
The incidence of West Nile was quite low last year for unknown reasons, Baker said, adding that there is really no way of knowing what each season will bring. More information on the virus and how it can be prevented can be found on the department's website, www.health.utah.gov.
In addition to West Nile, mosquitoes and other arthropods can carry diseases like malaria and encephalitis, said Utah State University biology professor Scott Bernhardt. While such incidence is rare in Utah, he said people should be aware of the possibility.
Mosquitoes currently hatching amid Utah's wetlands are daytime biters, causing merely a nuisance for those they feed on. Night-biters, such as C. tarsalis and C. pipiens, can carry disease but aren't out in force just yet, Dickson said.
Upcoming cooler temperatures won't have much consequence on current populations, but Dickson said it will slow down the growth and help his crews get caught up a little.
So far, few homes have been impacted, but homeowners are encouraged to get rid of standing water on their property. Early next week, abatement districts intend to send letters to all known ornamental pool owners, containing information on when they'll be around to spray personal properties.
"Even those are a little early this year," Dickson said.
In addition to standing water, he said homeowners should ensure that screens are properly fitted and repaired, keeping bugs on the outside where they belong. Mosquito larvae can be seen, specifically in the later stages, when they wiggle around and are darker in color, Dickson said. At that time, abatement officials should be notified.
Various districts throughout the state maintain websites where reports of mosquitoes can be found, as well as tracked. The UDOH also tracks the incidence of West Nile disease and where mosquitoes carrying the disease have been found.
While it may be early to be itching and scratching, conditions in Utah are much better than in many states on the East Coast, where dozens of cities were named on a recent list of U.S. cities most affected by mosquitoes.
According to a national survey of OFF! Insect Repellent consumers, 9 percent of respondents say they don't go outside without bug spray.
That number jumps to 34 percent in Richmond, Va., which has the country's highest prevalence of annoying mosquitoes, according to the study. Other cities in Virginia, as well as in North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Georgia, landed among the nation's top 10 most mosquito-ridden.