Health & Fitness

Zika fear means war on mosquitoes and possible collateral damage to the six-legged

How Zika spreads (and who's to blame)

The mosquito kills nearly 750,000 people each year. Malaria is the cause for the majority of these deaths, but a Zika outbreak has the Americas scared of this insect. This is how the insect spreads disease to its victims
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The mosquito kills nearly 750,000 people each year. Malaria is the cause for the majority of these deaths, but a Zika outbreak has the Americas scared of this insect. This is how the insect spreads disease to its victims

As you go to kill the ’skeeters, be mindful of the bees and butterflies.

The buzz of mosquitoes comes with an extra sense of dread this spring. For years in Kansas and Missouri, some species carried the potentially devastating West Nile virus. This year, they theoretically might transmit the Zika virus capable of spurring horrific birth defects in the children of women who have been infected.

That has prompted, say pest control companies, some added calls for help in a battle against the biters. So far, most firms say the uptick is modest.

People always hate mosquitoes, after all, so the remote chance that some of this year’s batch could deliver a new disease to the region has moved the needle only slightly.

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Two species that have been infected with the virus elsewhere, Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus, live in the Kansas City area and much of Kansas and Missouri. But biologists have yet to find any here infected with Zika.

Yet those in the insect-killing business expect the volume of calls for help to rise as more mosquitoes take flight in warmer months, especially if local outbreaks of Zika come to the continental United States. So far, the only cases in the states come from people who traveled to southern regions where virus-infected mosquitoes live.

Waging a more robust war on mosquitoes could have unintended consequences. Already the country’s bee population — and the ability to pollinate food crops and ornamental plants — has suffered dramatically in the past decade.

“You don’t want to kill the good with the bad,” said Rick Miller, a Kansas State University agricultural extension agent in Johnson County. “And if people are spraying too much or the wrong way or in the wrong places, that’s a risk.”

The danger comes from a carpet-bombing approach that figures more spraying is better. The A. aegypti mosquito may be harder to combat with chemicals because of the tiny, shady nooks it breeds in and the way it moves during the day, when other beneficial insects are also on the move.

Whatever you do, experts say, mind the label.

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Don’t use the outdoor stuff in your house or garage — that would risk headaches, nausea, skin rashes and breathing problems. Spray at the right time, the specialists say, avoiding midday when helpful pollinators flit from blossom to bloom.

And aim for the right places. Avoid the flower of a plant. Instead, shoot for the shady undersides of shrubbery, lawn furniture and particularly below decks to get the little suckers where they live.

Spraying too much, the wrong way or with the wrong insecticides could harm bees and other pollinators that keep your roses thriving and your vegetables growing.

Pest control companies say they’re braced for a demand to come.

“Not that many people are asking about it yet. There’s just this kind of ho-hum attitude. Oh, they hate mosquitoes, and they want them killed for other reasons, not just because of Zika,” said Pat VanHooser, the general manager of SOS Pest Control in Kansas City.

For starters, she said, people should clean up their standing water. Mosquitoes, particularly the kind with a Zika-sharing potential, need no more than a bottle cap to breed. Trimming back bushes and clearing brush takes away the hiding places of adult mosquitoes and exposes places where water might pool.

Forrest St. Aubin, an entomologist who works with Augustine Services in Overland Park, said that cleaning up your own yard will go a long way toward shooing off mosquitoes. Some can travel great distances, but the A. aegypti and A. albopictus typically don’t.

“If you don’t do it, and nobody else does it, you’re not going to alleviate the problem,” he said.

Ultimately, Zika fears are expected to drive more people to spray insecticides or hire a professional. Cat Heisler, the general manager of Pete’s Pest Control in Overland Park, said spraying for mosquitoes requires much more spraying than a typical treatment to attack ants or spiders around a house. Treating those creepy crawlies requires spraying the foundation and soil on the outside, cracks and crevices indoors.

But charging after mosquitoes requires spraying a broader area along a fence line, around bushes and sometimes the lawn.

“It’ll kill bees. It’ll kill ants, spiders. It’ll kill a lot of things,” she said. “We have to be careful about not allowing chemicals to get into our water system.”

It’s often better, she said, to eliminate the standing water — dump birdbaths at least weekly, for instance — and wear insect repellent when you go outside for long stretches.

“Sometimes,” she said, “it’s better to do less.”

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon