Imagine living in South Florida or the Florida Keys without some type of protection from the “mosquito”. Mosquitos are the most well known of the biting flies, but “no-see-ums,” their “all teeth”, nearly invisible cousin, are a force to be reckoned with.
Belonging to the Ceratopogonidae family, their common name actually refers to a specific type of tiny biting fly. also known as midges, biting gnats, or sand flies, who depend on a supply of fresh human blood to reproduce, There are about four thousand species of these insects, found in almost all parts of the world, where there is suitable wet habitat for multiplying.
The prevailing thought in the early 1900’s was that diking and draining the Everglades was needed to make South Florida habitable. Snowbirds came in December, and fled north in late spring, before it became muggy and buggy. Politicians needed more money, so their goal was to get people to visit longer, and eventually move here.
Governor Napoleon Broward (1905-09), campaigned on a promise that “All that was needed to turn a worthless swamp into rich farmland was to knock a hole in the wall of coral and let a body of water obey natural law and seek the level of the sea.” Well, we know how that turned out. Florida's natural beauty laid waste to the bulldozer, and the natural drainage and filtering system, would be gone forever.
I often wonder how the early settlers survived. The book “Charlotte’s Story”, tells the story of Russ and Charlotte Neidhauk who served as caretakers on the island of Elliott Key, the largest Key in Biscayne Bay, from 1934-35. They describe daily life without running water or power, farming and fishing to feed themselves. They lived in harmony with nature, using only what was available on the island or washed ashore via the “Overseas Lumber Company.“
Neidhauk wrote about mosquitos and no-see-ums: “When you get rain, you will soon have mosquitos. To get rid of mosquitos you need to eliminate the water where they live and reproduce. On the other hand sand fleas, live in just smelly, muck anywhere that has a food source and is damp. No way to eliminate them. To protect ourselves from them in the house, we oiled the screens, burned pyrethrum powder in a burner Russ had made with a pumice base and slotted coconut shell top. When we had to go out in them, we applied Vicks Salve to exposed areas. Eventually we discovered a screen paint which kept most of them outside. Mothballs dissolved in kerosene, helped keep these "Flying teeth" out. “
Ironically, Charlotte’s father, J. P. Arpin, had been a reclamation and drainage engineer for Gov. Broward. You just can’t control mother nature, The island was vacated after the Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, when salt water and waves submerged the island, destroying the homes and ruining the farmland.
Island homes belonging to the early settlers, Conchs and fishermen, were close to the water, on dry elevated lots. They relied on prevailing winds to keep them cool and relatively bug-free. The "window" openings had screens and shutters, but no windows.
My first apartment in the Keys was a “fish camp” type structure made from wooden forms, once used to construct homes in 1960’s era Miami. The landlord “Blinky” handed me a spray can of “Screen Pruf”, and explained this is what to spray on the window screens to keep the no-see-ums out. It was a thick black tar-like substance, and it definitely worked keeping out the bugs, but it sure messed up the view! These were the days before no-see-ums screen, a smaller 20 mesh size screen, which keeps no-see-ums out, though it does limit air flow through the screens.
What can we do to live with no-see-ums? Spraying is not practical, as a new crop of no-see-ums are hatching daily. Environmental protections prohibit spraying pesticide over protected marshlands and water.
We can wear protective clothing, or apply repellent. Bug repellents containing DEET are labeled for use against no-see-ums and mosquitos. A healthy alternative to chemicals is a homemade no-see-ums spray containing rosemary and alcohol. If you do get bit, wintergreen alcohol stops the itching within a minute and stays gone for hours.
Best defense… It is a good idea to research vacation destinations and potential homesites, so you can avoid times or locations with critters present to “bug” you. Or take a lesson from your teenager… just stay inside in the AC tethered to your electronic device.
The Keys are a sub-tropical mecca, for those seeking a life that is easy and breezy. At least that is the Tourist Development Council vision. In reality, competition for increasingly scarce resources, including housing, is a reality in the Keys… for humans and for the critters that live amongst us.
It’s a dog-eat dog world out there, and you better not be wearing milk bone shorts.
Not long ago the Green anoles were the majority of lizards found in my yard. Some had tails, and others not, thanks to my cats, but they were plentiful. They were great with camouflage, it’s body green when perched on a leaf, or turning brown when resting on a tree trunk. They did their job taking care of bugs in the yard, and provided a good source of entertainment. But then came the Cuban brown anole, a slightly larger lizard, easily identified by the mating male’s conspicuous bright orange dew-lap, and push-up behavior. They eat bugs and spiders… and other lizards. These Cuban cousins have more offspring than the Green anole; outcompeted and displaced, our native Green anole had to retreat to high in the tree canopy.
Head for the hills, my Green anole buddy! See you on the ground someday.
While cruising the islands of the Bahamas, I was introduced to lizards that had curly tails. I’d lived my entire life in Florida, but the Bahamas were the only place I’d seen these curious creatures. As it turns out, the Northern curly-tailed lizard was brought to Florida both as pets, and in the 1940’s sugar cane growers released them in their fields to control the insect population. These lizards can reach 11 inches, though most are around 7 inches in total length; they eat bugs and flowers, especially railroad vine, but also other lizards, particularly Cuban brown anoles.
Hold your position in the trees, my Green anole buddy! I’ve got your six.
Another lizard, the Peter’s Rock agama, began showing up in my yard around the end of 2020. Though first introduced by the pet trade in 1976, this lizard’s population really took off in the Keys, coincidentally during the pandemic, when the Keys were also “discovered” by an influx of new human residents, whose demand for second homes sent prices up, and the local workforce out. During mating season, Peter’s Rock agamas are pretty boys with boldly colored red heads, a black body, with more orange and ending with a black tip. Shy, they quickly retreat from humans, seeking cover under rocks or into the foliage. Both the agama and the curly-tail are sit-and-wait predators, who watch for crawling insects and butterflies. It’s no coincidence their favorite hangout in my yard is a coral rock covered by Corky-stemmed passion flower, the larval host plant for a variety of butterflies, including Gulf Fritillary, Julia Heliconian and Zebra Heliconian butterflies. The Peter’s Rock agama also preys on the Cuban brown anole.
Whisky Tango Foxtrot! Take cover, my Green anole buddy. There is a large predator heading your way. It’s an invasion!
The Green iguana was introduced to Florida via the pet trade; somehow they got loose and now are found in the Keys, to as far north as Tampa Bay, and all parts in-between. They feed on foliage, flowers and fruit, and will eat insects, lizards, small animals, nesting birds and eggs. The males grow to six foot long including the tail, that can whip you and transmit salmonella; alligators, dogs and raccoons are their only natural predators. They dig nesting burrows that contain an average of 40 eggs. These destructive burrows cause erosion and undermine seawalls, and can cause you to twist an ankle while walking near one.
It is hard to calculate how many iguanas there are. A friend hunkered down in his home during hurricane Irma was amazed at how many iguanas were in the trees; as the storm raged on, soon revealed were dozens of iguanas, clinging to the defoliated branches. Cold blooded, they fall from the trees when temperatures go below 45 degrees, an opportune time to reduce their population. Green iguanas are here through no fault of their own, but I’m all for the death penalty due to their destructive behavior; call a Nuisance and Wildlife Management Pro, to do it humanely.
There is one reptile in my yard, who can be heard during May at dawn and at dusk, but rarely seen. It’s diet includes insects, baby birds, and small mammals such as nesting mice. It lives in tree crevices, and even inside structures, behind suspended ceilings or within walls. A native of Southeast Asia, the Tokay gecko’s call is described as “tuck-too”, too-kay; it was this sound that prompted U.S. troops in Vietnam to informally dub it the "F*ck You Lizard…” an informal “reception committee,” and the only ones there telling you the truth.
Anyone out there ready to turn back the hands of time to the way things were in our youth? Our house pets were dogs and cats; they taught us responsibility, and were family members. There were also goldfish, a small turtle lagoon, caged parakeets or hamsters, and fluffy white “Blossom B Rabbit” who lived in a pen under the shade tree. Exotic creatures lived in zoos; venomous snakes, alligators and crocodiles were housed at the Miami Serpentarium until the late 70’s. .
Soon people began buying a new kind of pet: the harmless looking baby snake, sitting on a rock under a heat lamp in a pet store terrarium without thinking that when mature, the creature would be 20 feet long, weigh 200 pounds, live more than 25 years, and must be fed with live mice, rats, and eventually rabbits. There were reports of pythons in the Everglades in the ’70’s and 80’s, most likely caused by people releasing their unwanted pets, to happily slither off into saw-grass marsh or cypress slough.
Look out for snakes in the proverbial grass! If it were only that easy.
For years Everglades park managers were convinced these invasive snakes were escapees, or former pets, not part of a breeding population. Florida offers virgin hunting grounds for pythons, who are carnivorous, but aren’t picky. Last year in N. Key Largo 40 pythons were captured. These captures were humanely euthanized, and then necropsied to examine their stomach contents, which revealed a diet of possums, raccoons, woodrats, and cotton mice. Pythons are biological vacuum cleaners, their jaws are fitted with sharp, inward-curving teeth to grab their prey, while they coil their body around it. Pythons are ambush predators, so they patiently wait for animals to go by for their next meal.
The number of possums and raccoons in our area is fairly high; this may be because the Keys are fairly early in the python invasion, and/or because there are a lot of food resources available, so more young are born, and survive,
Poor Henry the Westie, family member of Julie and Rob, who one day on his regular “potty break” was traumatized by a near fatal encounter with a large python lurking in his backyard. It was the quick thinking of his dad, who snatched him from within inches of the pythons head. Later on Julie got to wondering where had the raccoon gone that regularly visited her pool for a drink. She concluded it must have been nabbed by the python. She said there was a feeding station next door, and that may be why the python has chosen this area to hunt. Soon after hearing this, I began scanning my property for potential food sources that may attract pythons, and guarding my doors from my cat’s possible escape.
The snakes have migrated to the Keys over land and by water, and are adapted to hiding underground, in the cracks and crevices of a geological ancient coral reef. There is whole subterranean world under our feet; a space where pythons have the ability to occupy and where man has an inability to detect, and they stay beyond reach in impenetrable mangrove swamps.
So how many pythons are there? Too many! Some distrust the agencies putting out the data, and believe the numbers are exaggerated for whatever reason. I'm no scientist, but the fact is pythons never were in my neighborhood before and now they are. EDDMAPS is a website, that shows on a map, the actual places where pythons have been sighted or captured.
The best thing people can do is be on the lookout for pythons. The most important thing to do if you see a python is take a photo. Document it, and then report it immediately. Percy the python sniffing dog is successful if it is a very recent sighting, a few hours or a day, but not more than that. If you see a python, call 1-888-IVEGOT1
As homeowners we should adopt cultural controls: things we can do to modify the habitat, without physically or chemically harming animals. We can eliminate food sources that attract small mammals such as rats, possums and raccoons to our homes. To prevent infestation of not only rats, but also pythons. we can close up crawl spaces under our homes, place mesh over vents that may be missing or cracked, and eliminate any holes big enough for critters and snakes to go through.
Indeed, things have changed since our youth. The night watchmen and security patrols have always had an eye out for suspicious human activity while on patrol; now their watch must be expanded to include the night creatures, If you were to drive on CR905 at night, you would potentially see pythons cruising the side of the road. Agencies must make it a condition of employment, and provide the training and incentive, to remove the python, not just drive right by it.
This photographic website provides me the opportunity for self-expression, for sharing