Skeeter season: Without this little-known team, life in Okaloosa County would be ‘unbearable’
Other than those that stretch across military bases and state parks and state lands, every street in Okaloosa County is coated with microscopic drops of mosquito spray once a week from about April to October in a typical year.
Employing an integrated system that also includes the use of mosquito-loving fish and other control methods, the mosquito control division of the county Public Works Department keeps the pesky skeeter population in check so people can survive and live more comfortably in this part of the Sunshine State.
It’s no easy task, considering that 57 of the 89 species of mosquitoes that buzz about and cause headaches in Florida reside in Okaloosa County. Too, a mosquito can occupy and lay eggs in as little as a bottle cap worth of standing water.
The county’s state-permitted, highly effective mosquito control efforts began about half a century ago, yet many residents do not know the mosquito control division exists, according to Scott Henson, the division’s director, and Brian Shepheard, who is a division foreman.
Simply put, without skeeter control, “You would not be living here,” Henson said.
Life in Okaloosa County would be “unbearable” otherwise, he said.
The skeeter killers
Eglin Air Force Base has its own health department and mosquito control squad, and state parks benefit from the county’s mosquito control measures undertaken on adjacent properties, Henson said. Many mosquitoes in state forests, meanwhile, are eaten by natural predators, according to county information.
The streets and areas that regularly receive mosquito-controlling “adulticide treatments,” based on surveillance methods and scientific data, cover about 550,000 acres in Okaloosa County.
On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights during each season, the mosquito control division typically uses seven truck-mounted sprayers that expel clouds of permetherin-based insecticide, which is a type of contact killer called Kontrol 4-4.
The trucks currently are delivering the treatments from 6:45 p.m., which is an hour before sunset, to almost midnight. Most mosquito species feed at dusk or dawn, and the nighttime hours usually are when fewer people are outside.
In addition, almost all of the bees managed by the area’s many state-registered beekeepers are back in their hives by sundown, Henson said.
“As soon as the truck goes by and the (spray) fog has dissipated and you don’t see it in the air anymore, you’re good. You can go right back outside and enjoy your activities,” Shepheard said. “You don’t have to wait 24 hours or anything like that.”
The evening treatment schedule, which lists the days and corresponding treated areas, is found at http://www.co.okaloosa.fl.us/sites/default/files/users/piouser/mosquitoschedule041521.pdf.
While the spraying season usually ends in October, Shepheard recalled how the treatment schedule had to be extended following the unwelcome visit from Hurricane Sally last September.
“We were in the process of slowing down and switching everybody to day shift, and then Sally unloaded its wrath on top of us and the mosquito population exploded” because of the deluge of rainwater, said Shepheard, who is an 18-year employee of the mosquito control division. “So everybody had to go right back to nights again and start spraying. I think we sprayed almost until Christmas. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen Christmas lights while we were spraying at night.”
Some residents recall when they were kids riding their bicycles behind one of the county’s white-colored spray trucks and letting the fog of insecticide wash over them.
“That still happens,” Henson noted. “And that’s not good. I mean, it’s a chemical that kills things. But we atomize it before it goes out. The droplets are extremely small. It’s carried by the wind and it drifts. If you get sprayed, you’re not going to die.”
Henson said only one individual in Okaloosa County is registered with the state as “chemical-sensitive” person, who is notified before any Kontrol 4-4 is sprayed by his or her north county home.
The mosquito control division’s annual budget totals about $750,000. It includes about $35,000 in state money but mostly is funded with property tax revenue.
On average, 2,500 to 3,000 gallons of insecticide are sprayed onto the roughly 550,000-acre treatment area each season, Shepheard said.
Henson noted that Daniel DeBord, the division’s surveillance specialist, plays a vital role in the county’s battle against mosquitoes by managing 12 static mosquito trapping systems countywide, with six on the north end and six on the south end.
DeBord collects mosquitoes from the traps once per week and brings them back to his labs, where he will use quadrants and mathematics to count them and separate them by species.
“Only certain mosquitoes raise red flags,” said Henson. “The female mosquito is the only one that bites. We look for the ones that carry or potentially carry a virus with them.”
Some of the latest mosquito counts, with information on species and the types of viruses they can carry, are found at http://www.co.okaloosa.fl.us/sites/default/files/users/pwuser/MC-TR-6MonthBinder.pdf.
Such information helps identify known “hot spots” of mosquitoes and is used by officials to plan treatment coverage.
DeBord also has an inventory of portable mosquito traps that he can take to high-risk places, such as a retirement home where residents might face a greater danger of becoming ill from a mosquito-borne illness.
“We work together with the Okaloosa County Public Health Department, and they’ll inform us when there’s a positive arbovirus detection or it’s suspected, and we’ll set up either a spray routine or a larvicide routine or whatever we have to do to get things in control in that area so it doesn’t spread from that area or the person’s place of work,” Henson said.
Before DeBord began working for the mosquito control division a few years ago, the county’s mosquito surveillance program was managed by Florida State University. Having an in-house expert is much more efficient, Henson and Shepheard said.
“If I get a phone call from a homeowner in Destin or Mary Esther or wherever they’re located at, and they’re just getting a tremendous amount of mosquitoes, I can actually pull Daniel and say, “Hey, when you get time, can you run and put a trap in this location for me? Let’s see what’s going on over there,' " Shepheard said.
“When we had our contract with FSU, we weren’t able to do that,” he said.
Henson said the county’s mosquito control efforts also include work by two “larvicide specialists” who go into swamps and other “sketchy” areas, where they’ll take water samples to find the presence of mosquitoes. About 1,900 sites of standing water are checked and treated with larvicides on a regular basis.
In addition, more than 750 ponds and areas with standing water are treated with high-reproducing Gambusia fish that eat mosquito larva. The minnow-size fish are raised at various sites, such as a 9-foot-deep pond next to the mosquito control division facility on the west side of Fort Walton Beach.
“The majority of the ‘mosquitofish’ requests that we get are going to be at the (county’s) north end, where people have livestock, horses, whatever, and they have the watering troughs that just sit out there full of water and they’ll breed mosquitoes,” Shepheard said. “We’ll put a few Gambusia fish in there and they’re good to go.”
Okaloosa's mosquito treatment coverage also is assisted by information gleaned from sentinel chickens in Walton County’s mosquito control program.
Blood serum from the chickens is regularly checked at a lab to help identify the presence of a virus. The birds represent a “sacrificial blood source,” Henson said.
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“If the water is moving at a pretty good rate, that’s not a good habitat for a mosquito,” Henson said. “Sometimes it doesn’t even take standing water” for one of the insects to lay eggs, “but just something that’s moist all the time. They’ll grow in holes in trees and in containers.”
Children’s toys, tires, and flower pot saucers are among the items that homeowners should keep free of water to help decrease the mosquito population, Shepheard said.
For more tips for homeowners, visit http://www.co.okaloosa.fl.us/pw/environmental/mosquito-control/home-check-up.
Shepheard noted that, perhaps because of the area’s constant influx of new residents, “We’re in 2021 and we still have people to this day call that have no clue that we even spray (for mosquitoes). They didn’t even know that Okaloosa County had a mosquito control program and that we went out and sprayed at night. It surprises me, it really does.”
The mosquito control division is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Contact the division at 850-651-7394 or 689-5772.