Reflections on Mosquito Control Spraying

Article by Doug Lockard, June 2021

My neighbor is a great guy who has a beautiful home and he has a passion for his landscape.  It’s mostly turf grass and he cares for it himself, a sort of Zen-like therapy I think.  They recently put in a new swimming pool, and in preparation for using it this summer, hired a firm to spray his yard for mosquito control.  

Now in my yard, I work equally as hard as my neighbor at creating a living landscape where predominantly native plants thrive along with a modest kitchen garden of herbs and vegetables.  I try to be chemical free so as to encourage the beneficial insects, birds, and small animals to visit.  

A neighborhood cat loves to lounge under our bird feeders and fountain.  We’ve never seen her actually catch anything, but the birds and squirrels keep a wary eye on her.  It’s the balance of life; at least she gives them a sporting chance, which is more than I can say for the chemicals.  Anyway, we tolerate her because she’s sweet and visits us in the evenings, and occasionally slips into the basement and keeps the mice at bay in the house.  All in all, she’s a good neighbor too.

Recently, I observed the mosquito control truck and someone spraying the yard next door.  The ‘technician’ was ‘fogging’ ten feet in from the property line aiming his nozzle directly at my yard, up and down a great plume of chemical fog into the open border shrubbery.  There was a 17 mile an hour wind that day (my wife told me later after viewing the episode from the upstairs balcony) which was carrying the plume of chemical destruction not only into my yard, but directly into my compost bin where’d I’d been working all year to create some home-grown nutrients for my landscape.

Houston, we have a problem!  

I managed to get the technician to stop spraying, although not until I threatened to call the police on him. (I couldn’t reach my neighbor and the kid refused to stop).  I talked to my neighbor later and he apologized profusely, but I assured him there was no need as he had every right to spray his yard. It was the technician that was out of line and needed to use more care to keep his chemicals in my neighbor’s space and out of mine.  Likely, it was due to poor training by his company.  I assume my neighbor spoke with them as subsequently there have been no further incidents.

I’m no scientist, but as I understand it, most urban mosquito control programs use some variation of organophosphates such as natural (pyrethins) and synthetic (pyrethroids) are effective against adult mosquitos (adulticides), if sprayed according to label directions about every 3 weeks in normal summer weather.  EPA-registered adulticides have been studied for effectiveness and safety to humans and domestic animals, but they can be devastating against almost every other beneficial ‘bug’ found in the urban landscape.  Beneficial bugs such as bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, and ants are among the most common essential to the pollination of our plants;  an irreplaceable source of protein for our birds and small mammals.  

So, this brings us back to the ‘death of nature’ problem, where we humans feel the need to conquer nature to make it more comfortable for us.  I get it.  I like to sit out in my own backyard in the summer months; but killing ALL the bugs just to deal with the annoying mosquitos is simply not sustainable.  We simply can’t continue to indiscriminately kill off all the birds and bees without it eventually showing up on our own doorstep.  Or, more to the point, our children’s and grandchildren’s.  

Research will continue on the pros and cons of mosquito control, but for now, Consumer Reports offers some excellent suggestions in a post entitled Should You Spray?, that may help you protect your living landscape and disharmony in the ‘hood.

  • Professional sprayers should have strategies for the protection of ‘nontarget’ organisms, such as standing with their back to the property line and working with the wind to minimize the drift of chemicals into non-target areas.  
  • Professional sprayers should be knowledgeable of the chemicals they are using.  They are required to have in their possession a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the chemicals in use at the time. 
  • When it comes to insect abatement, there is no official standard for the term ‘organic’, so there’s no guarantee that something labeled organic is any safer than anything else.
  • Professional sprayers should have a chemical rotation strategy.  The CDC has reported that mosquito-borne infection-control measures were not working as well as it had hoped, in part because mosquitoes had developed resistance to some of the chemicals used.  “…the chemicals that are sprayed and the way they are sprayed—can make the problem of resistance much better or much worse…. make sure that any company you work with handles these chemicals responsibly.”

We’ll keep you posted.  Comments welcome at Upstatemedia@scnps.org