Love Stings

Wings sprinkled with fairy dust. Free-falling sex. A bite that can kill. Meet Minnesota's favorite insect -- and the men who adore it.

Osterholm, who back in the Eighties served on a tiger mosquito task force set up by the federal Centers for Disease Control, says the insect could not survive a Minnesota winter: "But they can survive over a summer here. And a disease situation could amplify quickly and become a real problem, making this mosquito much more than a mere pest or a nuisance." All it would take, he explains, is a jump in the tiger-mosquito population and a few cases of, say, malaria--a scenario that is not as far-fetched as it seems. Epidemiologists, Osterholm notes, speak of "airport-associated malaria," cases in which the victims had no known contact with the disease, but lived near an airport, where they could have been bitten by mosquitoes escaped from planes.

"We are moving tons and tons and tons of product across the world," Osterholm offers. "We are opening airplane hatches in Minneapolis that were packed for the first time in a remote tropical area of the world. In one of those planes could be a mosquito that transmits diseases we don't even know about yet."


Michael Dvorak

For now, though, Minnesota mosquitoes remain largely a nuisance--and mosquito control, says UM's Moon, remains a luxury. "We are rich enough to spend money to improve the quality of leisure time. We want those tourists to come back. We want those midlevel executives to be able to golf comfortably."

But comfort is expensive. The Metropolitan Mosquito Control District's fiscal 1998 budget was $8.6 million; most of that came from a special levy on local property-tax bills, with the rest made up by state funds. And taxpayers want to see mosquitoes killed for their money.

"We got close to 4,000 calls last year," says MMCD spokesman Mike McLean. "Most are from people saying, 'The mosquitoes are
horrible at our house. Can you help us?' Or: 'We're having people over for my daughter's graduation on Saturday.' Or: 'Our block party is next week.'" This year, McLean reports, those calls have been pouring in at a record rate (20 percent more than last year), forcing the MMCD to hire an extra staffer just to answer phones.

Every time such a complaint is logged, McLean says, MMCD inspectors go out and measure the site's pest population. Studies have found, he explains, that most people notice mosquitoes after being approached by three or more in five minutes, and eleven in five minutes will send almost everyone scurrying indoors. The MMCD has set its "slap count" threshold at two mosquitoes in two minutes. Anything more will prompt the dispatching of a "fogger truck" or a worker bearing a backpack fumigating unit. Last year, some 71,000 acres were treated this way.

It's those fogging excursions that make the MMCD a favorite boogeyman for environmentalists. "Why should the government be involved in spraying for someone's graduation party?" asks Judy Bellairs, legislative director for the North Star chapter of the Sierra Club. The group has long been critical of the MMCD, and this January it was among a coalition of environmental organizations that published the Minnesota Green Scissors Report (, a list of budget cuts the groups said would save taxpayers money and benefit the environment. The report called for dropping all state funding for the MMCD. And in 1995 the Sierra Club supported a bill at the state Legislature that would have abolished the agency altogether.

Bellairs acknowledges that her group's opposition centers on the district's use of pesticide sprays against adult mosquitoes: The chemicals, she notes, have been found to kill fish, bees, and butterflies at certain doses, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers one of them, resmethrin, a possible human carcinogen. "Rather than spreading insecticides over thousands of acres," Bellairs argues, "it would make more sense for people to use personal mosquito sprays."

Environmentalists aren't alone with their concerns. The District's own technical advisory board has objected to the use of adult-mosquito sprays, noting that the pesticides kill only 57 percent of their targets. And this January, a legislative auditor's report faulted the district for spraying private businesses--such as drive-in theaters--at no charge, even though the district's own policies said businesses should pay.

But the biggest blow to the MMCD's image came in 1994, when the Minneapolis Park Board banned the bug-fighters from its land. Environmental Operations Manager Jeff Lee says the move came when the park board discovered that "if someone called and asked the MMCD to treat [on park land], they would do that without notifying us of any spraying. So people would call and say, 'What were you spraying in my park?' These days, Lee says, the park board allows MMCD workers to spread larval controls, but the ban on adult spraying remains in place. "You want ducks and songbirds," he says, "you need some insects to go with them."

McLean was not with the MMCD when the parks ban came down. But, he says, he's told things were different then: "From what I've heard, there probably was a certain amount of arrogance. We used to say: 'We know where the mosquitoes are, get out of our way.' I know that we weren't welcome in some quarters, and now we're slowly working our way back in. Now we bend over backward making sure that people's property boundaries are respected. Before, like a lot of government agencies, we didn't always do that good a job of listening."

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