It’s an increasingly familiar sight in American cities and suburbs: a pickup truck pulls up on the sidewalk. Workers wearing gloves, masks and other protective gear strap on backpack-like mechanisms with plastic pipes, similar to leaf blowers.
Running engines, they spray trees, bushes and even house walls with pesticides targeting an age-old threat: mosquitoes.
Winged, spindly-legged bloodsuckers have long been the scourge of backyard barbecues and, in tropical countries, carriers of serious disease. Today, with climate change expanding the insect’s range and extending its peak season, more Americans are turning to the burgeoning industry of professional garden spraying.
“If you like being outdoors, it’s definitely nicer not to swat the mosquitoes and worry about all the trouble,” said Marty Marino, a recent client from Cascade Township in Michigan, a dormitory community near Grand Rapids.
But the chemical bombardment is beginning to worry scientists who fear the excessive use of pesticides could harm pollinators and aggravate a growing threat to insect-eating birds.
“The materials these companies spray kill all insects,” said Lynn Goldman, a professor of environmental health at George Washington University and former deputy administrator for toxic substances at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“That includes bees, butterflies, and all kinds of beneficial insects that people may not like but should,” Goldman said. “It’s not good to have this kind of indiscriminate killing, which ruins the whole ecosystem.”
More than 40% of insect species in the world are threatened with extinction, including some pollinating bees and butterflies, according to the journal Biological Conservation.
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Spray companies, which have mushroomed with growing demand, say they are trying to minimize pollinator losses but recognize there is collateral damage.
Mosquito Joe, who treated Marino’s garden and those of several neighbors on a wet July morning, avoids spraying on windy days when the poisons would blow on flowering plants that attract bees, said Lou Schager, president of the company based in Virginia Beach, Va.
“We need our pollinators,” said David Price, director of technical services for the company. “They are incredibly important. But at the same time, we have to eliminate mosquitoes that (carry) diseases.
In 2020, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a “dramatic” increase in diseases spread by mosquitoes and other blood-sucking animals. Zika, Chikungunya and West Nile viruses appeared in the United States. Asian tiger and yellow fever mosquitoes originating in the tropics are now common in southern states and have begun to afflict southern California.
With climate change, Michigan’s mosquito season is about a month longer at the start and end than it was a few decades ago, as warm-weather varieties appear more and more, the professor said. Edward Walker entomology from Michigan State University.
Meanwhile, revenues from mosquito spraying have soared, according to Pest Control Technology, a trade publication. Exterminators are adding mosquitoes to their traditional services and new companies are making mosquitoes a priority.
Overall 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 almost a fifth of the company’s revenue in 2021.
A Zika outbreak that began in 2015 and has spread to more than 80 countries has helped fuel the company’s rise, said Daniel Markowski, technical adviser to the American Mosquito Control Association, a nonprofit group. nonprofit with 1,200 members.
“It was all over the media,” Markowski said, and “got a lot of pest control companies saying, ‘Fuck, I could make a lot of money with residential services.'”
Established in 2010, Mosquito Joe now has 173 franchises in 39 states, Schager said.
Many companies use a “residual barrier” strategy, spraying pesticides around the perimeter of a property that typically lasts for several weeks. When mosquitoes settle on bushes or trees, they receive a lethal dose.
For garden treatments, companies typically use pyrethrins — insect-killing substances produced by chrysanthemum flowers — or synthetic mimics called pyrethroids.
The federal government says the chemicals are safe for humans when used as directed and are generally not toxic to birds. But they are deadly to fish and bees, and indirectly harm birds by killing the insects they feed on, Goldman said.
A decline of 3 billion North American birds in recent decades has largely consisted of insect eaters, from whip-poor-wills to red robins and barn swallows.
The EPA says it is seeking more information on pollinator harm as part of a periodic review of pyrethrins and pyrethroids and may order labeling changes if necessary.
Critics also say homeowners are falling in love with the companies’ sales pitches when simpler methods, such as draining standing water sources and running electric fans, would keep mosquitoes away.
Scientists have used “gene editing” technology to disable light receptors in the eyes of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, an invasive species in much of the world that can carry disease. UC Santa Barbara professor Craig Montell talks about the research that made mosquitoes unable to detect humans.
The Mosquito Control Association says companies should clean mosquito breeding areas first and only spray when an inspection shows it’s necessary, rather than on a set schedule.
“If I’m doing my job, you won’t need my mosquito service over time,” said Dan Killingsworth, director of operations for Environmental Security Pest Control, based in Panama City Beach, Florida. “If I can reduce mosquitoes on your property to where they are no longer 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 its use of insecticides and typically sprays every three to four weeks, arguing that regular treatments are needed to disrupt breeding cycles.
Marino, the Michigan owner, says he’s trying an optional spray of water mixed with “essential oils” from plants such as garlic, lemongrass, peppermint and rosemary, which are less harmful to others. insects. About 10% of Mosquito Joe’s customer base uses this option, although most prefer longer-lasting pyrethroids, Price said.
The company charges about $90 per treatment with pyrethroids, while oils cost about 20% more, he said.
“One of our dogs likes to eat wood chips from landscaping,” Marino said. “If there’s synthetic insecticide on it, that’s a big concern.”