SKEETERS! CALL IN THE SWAT TEAM 53 kinds in Maryland, and, yes, they're famous


HONGA -- Take home a Chesapeake memory. Feed a mosquito.

You'll never hear that slogan from Eastern Shore tourism officials and merchants, but the little bug that packs a big bite is as famous in Chesapeake Bay country as the crabs and waterfowl that boosters use to promote the tidewater region.

This season's first swarms of mosquitoes, including the distinctive salt marsh species infamous for its notable nip, have already taken to the air, searching for a convenient blood banquet.

Just how bad they get is a matter of perspective and experience, says Arthur Meilhammer, a state mosquito control supervisor in Dorchester County.

He should know. It's his job to measure just how bad they are. Like other mosquito control workers, he does it the hard way, using himself as bait.

Standing in a salt marsh near the Honga River, Mr. Meilhammer holds out a bare arm and silently counts the number of bugs that settle onto his flesh.

In less than a minute, eight mosquitoes have landed on his arm. Others buzz around his head.

"For Dorchester County," he says with a nod, "this is actually pleasant."

Among Maryland's 53 varieties of mosquito, the Aedes sollicitans is the most memorable for anyone whose flesh is penetrated by the female's proboscis, or feeding appendage.

"Literally, they are world famous," state entomologist Cyrus Lesser said of the salt marsh 'skeeter, a ravenous pest that can make summer miserable for anyone venturing outdoors in low-lying coastal areas from Louisiana to Maine.

Unlike its tamer cousins, the salt marsh mosquito bites 24 hours a day, making it unpleasant for its human prey to be outdoors even at noon, when most other mosquitoes are seeking refuge from the sun.

State insect experts say it's difficult to predict how bad the mosquitoes will be this year, because their population depends largely upon the amount of rainfall during winter and spring.

On one hand, a drier-than-normal winter like the one just passed may help control the early generation of salt marsh mosquitoes. On the other hand, a lack of what bug watchers call "ephemeral pools" helps reduce the number of fish that naturally feed on mosquito larvae.

This spring, heavy rains have left surface pooling in parts of the Eastern Shore lowlands, providing ideal local breeding conditions.

"The mosquito population from here on will be a complete function of the weather," said Mr. Lesser, one of seven insect experts with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

If the area is saturated with rains, he said, "midsummer could be bad."

State budget problems forced a 10 percent reduction in mosquito control funds this year.

The Agriculture Department spends much of the money spraying the chemical Cythion -- which is 91 percent malathion -- on areas where mosquitoes thrive.

Other, longer-lasting efforts to control mosquito populations include creating deeper breeding pools for the larvae-loving fish that feed on the bugs before they have a chance to mature and pester humans.

If this year's mosquito population stays near or below normal levels, said Mr. Lesser, the $2 million control budget should be sufficient.

And if the mosquitoes are abnormally abundant?

"If we have a severe outbreak, we may not have enough resources to conduct our program in each county," Mr. Lesser said.

The Agriculture Department is mandated by state law to make some effort to control mosquitoes to prevent the spread of disease and hold down the considerable nuisance level.

For homeowners who don't want to use chemical insecticides to keep their backyards mosquito-free, the citronella plant is becoming popular.

Sales of Pelargonium citrosum, a scented geranium, have been increasing since the plant was introduced commercially to the Eastern Shore several years ago, said Lee Dawkins, a horticulturist and co-owner of Hilly's in Easton.

Although the plant produces a chemical similar to that used in anti-bug citronella candles, it is not a perfect repellent.

"It's a control, not a cure," said Mr. Dawkins.

In previous springs, Mr. Meilhammer said, large clouds of mosquitoes could be seen and heard rising from the salt marsh.

Within hours after emerging from breeding pools as adults, the mosquitoes are capable of flying hundreds of feet skyward, where they can be picked up by winds.

"As long as they keep their wings extended, they are aerodynamic," said Mr. Lesser, which means it's not unusual for salt marsh insects from Dorchester County to "invade" Southern Maryland across the Chesapeake Bay.

Generally, male mosquitoes impregnate females and then spend the rest of their weeklong life span feeding on plant nectar.

Females, on the other hand, live three to four weeks, constantly seeking a "blood meal" to provide protein for the development of eggs.

A female mosquito is capable of laying several thousand eggs in her lifetime.

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