A bug’s life: A ride-along along with Lee County Mosquito Control

November 20, 2021
By T Michele Walker

(Warning, a multitude of mosquito larvae were harmed during the writing of this story)

Three warriors step forward, cross-armed, ready to take flight. Cue Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” The warriors’ names are Jamie Fowler, Scott Shanks, and pilot Mike Haslam, members of the Lee County Mosquito Control District (LCMCD or nicknamed “The District”) team. The mission is to eradicate mosquitoes from Gasparilla and surrounding islands.

It may seem like an ordinary job, but only if your ordinary job includes regular helicopter flights around the islands or boating into Cayo Costa knowing the resident alligator will be greeting you. 

A pro tip from Scott Shanks, bring donuts. For the gator and the team.

This Boca Beacon reporter was given full access by LCMCD and given an exclusive look into their day-to-day routine. This included helicopter action as we flew over the entire area including Gasparilla Island and Cayo Costa.

Lee County Mosquito Control District

The LCMCD has been around since 1958 providing uninterrupted mosquito control services to the citizens of Lee County for over sixty years. 

During these years, the LCMCD has led the charge in the science of mosquito control, helping to develop control technologies that are effective and sensitive to Florida’s unique natural habitats and wildlife. 

Lee County, which includes Boca Grande and the surrounding islands, has many acres of salt marsh and other wetlands are some of the most prolific mosquito breeding habitats on earth. In order to provide a comfortable outdoor environment for Lee County citizens and reduce the threat of diseases posed by mosquitoes, LCMCD continually monitors these habitats and endeavors to control mosquitoes in the aquatic immature stages before they become flying and biting adult mosquitoes. 

LCMCD employees, which include public information specialist Jamie Fowler, pilot Mike Haslam, and our very own Scott Shanks, are trained and certified in Public Health Pest Control and are committed to providing sound and effective mosquito control.

Scott Shanks standing outside Boca Grande’s mosquito central. 

How many times have you been driving on the island and looked up to see a helicopter hovering overhead? Chances are it was the LCMCD helicopter piloted by Mike Halsam with Scott Shanks by his side.

Scott is not only responsible for Boca Grande, but all of the outer islands. “There are some areas on Cayo Costa that are just terrible,” he said as he showed me the online program for documentation of reported cases. “This screen right here are service requests when people call and complain, and there aren’t many of them right now.”

The schedule for mosquito control can be daunting. “At night, three nights a week, I have to come back here at 8:30 and run a trap truck. It’s a truck that has a big trap on the top. We go up and down the road to see what mosquitoes we catch. That can be tough, to go home for four hours and then come back. When you get covered with mosquitoes, that’s not pleasant.”

Now that the season is upon us, the LCMCD would like to share a few tips to help “Fight the Bite.”

• Tip #1 The first tip is “Cutter Skinsations,” a spray made by Cutter. “It’s the best and I cover myself in this stuff,” said Scott, and he should know since he is out in the field every day.

• Tip #2 Check your yard for pooling water.  Most people know to not have empty tires in your yard, but this can include kiddy pools, gutters, dog dishes, and even soda cans. Any location where there is standing water is a potential breeding ground.

“Typically when we have service requests, it’s people breeding their own mosquitoes,” explained Scott. “They have bromeliads growing around their doors and they will say to me, ‘I can’t go out my front door because I get eaten by mosquitoes.’ And then you look around and see that they have 50 bromeliads right there. That’s the reason.”

• Tip #3 is to use specific plants and flowers to repel mosquitoes and pests. These plants can be placed at your doorstep. They include marigolds, lavender, catnip, scented geraniums, basil, and rosemary.  Some say that citronella works, but Scott laughed and admitted, “I’m afraid I don’t think citronella is incredibly effective. I just don’t think it works very well.”

After going on a spot check for larvae, Scott was happy to find that the trap was empty. “There are no larvae, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see some mosquito activity. We do have a breed called Aedes taeniorhynchus, which is a saltwater mosquito. They also will come out of freshwater, but primarily saltwater. They’re very aggressive and that’s primarily the species we deal with here. The good news is that they typically don’t carry disease. They’re just really annoying.”

Since the typical mosquito is not a strong flyer, when you have a breeze or fans blowing, that is a good deterrent, except for the Aedes taeniorhynchus. “They can fly a range of up to 90 miles. They radio-tagged them in Key West and I believe they showed up in Naples.” 

We’re Number One

Did you know that the world record for the number of salt marsh mosquitoes caught in a trap in one night was held on Sanibel Island? 

“In 1950, near the Sanibel Lighthouse over 350,000 mosquitoes were caught in a CDC Light Trap,” explained Jamie Fowler.  “This preceded the creation of the Lee County Mosquito Control District in 1958.  Research of the Aedes taeniorhynchus (black salt marsh mosquito) on Sanibel also confirmed the species flight range of over 40 miles! Southwest Florida is a beautiful place to live and visit, but it is a subtropical environment making it a perfect place for mosquitoes to breed, so it is always important to do your part to not grow your own mosquitoes and to also take the proper precautions to protect yourself.  When possible avoid most active times for mosquitoes, which are dawn and dusk, wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, and wear EPA approved insect repellents.”

Humans are not the only animals affected by mosquitoes. Our furry, fluffy friends are just as vulnerable to the itchy menace. “Mosquitoes are capable of transmitting dog heartworm, which is a parasite that can cause heart failure and lung disease,” explained Fowler. “So it is definitely important to take care of your pups.” 

Eliminating places for mosquitoes to grow around your home by dumping any stagnant water from containers. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the best heartworm medication for your pets and also pet-friendly repellants. If possible, avoid having your dogs out at peak mosquito activity times, which are dawn and dusk.

As LCMCD’s public information specialist, Jamie Fowler has a passion for sharing vital information with the people of Lee County. 

Jamie’s Top “Bites” of information:

• Helicopters are used in daily operations for surveillance and larviciding. It is common to see our helicopters in the air seven days a week during the summer. 

• Flooded areas do not always mean mosquito problems. When we start receiving a lot of rain and ditches fill up and stay full, natural predators like crayfish, tadpoles, water beetles, and Gambusia (mosquito fish) will start to move into those stagnate bodies of water and help control the mosquito larvae. Small containers filled with water around homes, buckets, clogged rain gutters, or anything that doesn’t have natural predators of mosquito larvae can and will produce a lot of mosquitoes.

• The busier time of the year for mosquito activity typically starts in May and ends by October, but because we do live in a subtropical environment mosquito activity occurs year-round. 

• Gambusia (mosquito fish) is a biological tool used by LCMCD to help control mosquitoes in the larval stage. Our inspectors take these freshwater fish with them during their daily inspections and place them in sites that would be beneficial. 

• Although the peak time for mosquito activity is typically between May to October, our operations continue year around. Weekend and holiday work are often needed. Mosquitoes do not take days off and we need to be ready to respond. 

• When we get a lot of rain or experience a high tide, we have a small window of time to locate the breeding areas and treat the mosquitoes in their larval stage before they become biting adults. In the summer months, it’s a continuous battle, which is why it takes a team in the air, on the ground, and on the water to make Lee County livable for residents and our visitors.

The rewards of a job well done are many. For Scott Shank, “My favorite part is when you find larvae and you treat it, the whole process of loading the helicopter, then going back the next day to check. When they’re all gone, it’s very satisfying.”

For Jamie Fowler, “One of the best things about the job is seeing how we are directly helping people. More and more people from out of state are moving to Lee County, and we work every day to share our mission to protect public health and ‘Fight the Bite.’” 

And it’s clear when being piloted about by Mike Haslam that he loves the view from the helicopter as much as the camaraderie, as did this reporter as we swooped and meandered through the islands and marshes, privy to a view experienced by few and far between. 

Yes, riding in the LCMCD helicopter is a thrilling way to spend time at work. Not too shabby.

Citizens can also call the LCMCD at (239) 694-2174 or submit a service request online at @lcmcd.org to make a request. 

Helpful resources for the public created by LCMCD can be found on LCMCD’s Fight the Bite page