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.
It was another humid Florida Keys day, with record setting heat, when a naturalist friend alerted me to a very rare bird sighting. The tip came from a true photo enthusiast, who sadly possessed only an iPhone. I gathered up my professional photo gear and showed up in the hopes of getting a shot. OK… Though most of my photo archive consists of photos of birds flying away, I am optimistic. The first rule of photography… always have your camera ready so you can be there to get the shot. The thing about the iPhone is you will definitely have it when something happens, and though they are amazing, they fall short on details.
The rare birds were a pair of Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) which had been parading back-and-forth in a small cove on the Atlantic side of North Key Largo. The second rule in photography, is you have to be lucky; I was pleased when the swans decided to come to the shore and greet me. My friend called me a “swan magnet.” These birds possessed no fear at all. Was it the bold blue hydrangea print dress I was wearing, or maybe I represented a source of food, as people tend to befriend wildlife in nature.
I lingered for the best part of an hour, took dozens of swan portraits, before they retreated offshore as the tide was going down, and more feeding grounds opened up on the flats. It was a breathtaking scene, with Carysfort Lighthouse on the distant horizon, sport fishing yachts and sailboats passing by, and even some paddle-boarders moving through. From time to time I would see a flash of white feathers, as they dunked and bobbed, but wasn’t sure where on their body, as they were so far away.
Ecstatic that I had been able to witness such a beautiful display of nature, I headed home, eager to share my discovery with my husband, whose first reaction was, “oh that’s very bad.”
Huh? I was more thinking this was a gift, and I was blessed to witness it. As a child, I recall seeing White Mute swans paddling in the canal behind our home off East Las Olas in Ft. Lauderdale. We’d feed them scraps of bread and enjoy their presence, but one day these graceful creatures, whose only predators are birds of prey, mysteriously disappeared, amidst rumors of foul play. Maybe that’s what my husband was thinking about… that humans can be so cruel sometimes?
I later returned to the cove, and they were still there, but a Great Blue heron had now befriended them, and they were happily feeding side-by-side. I thought for a moment, how is the Blue heron reacting to these strangers? Has it ever seen a Black swan, with a long neck such as this? All of a sudden one of the swans fluttered up and revealed a beautiful white underside to an otherwise black feathered body.
I captured many images of these swans, both close-up, and far away… so much for my theory about birds flying away! I logged a few photographs on iNaturalist (www.iNaturalist.org) to confirm the identity and search for places where Black swans had been observed; the closest to the Keys was Fort Lauderdale, but very few overall had been reported. There are estimated 500,000 Black swans in the entire world. The Black swan is a non-native species, and there are no breeding populations in this area, They are migratory, and their origin is southeast and southwest regions of Australia. Florida is home to three species of swan: the Mute swan, the Trumpeter swan and Whooper swans. Factors that may have attracted the Black swans to this area include the search for more abundant food options, and migration patterns.
They are typically found near lakes and ponds, with fresh water and cover needed to survive, but they frequent brackish environments during migration times when resources become scarce elsewhere. 80% of a swans diet consists of plant based food sources, but they will also eat small fish, mollusks, insects, crustaceans and worms when available.
While online, I checked my email, and my husband had sent me info about the “black swan theory”, often used as a metaphor for an unexpected event, that plays a dominant role in history. Up until a Dutch explorer in 1697 discovered Black swans in Australia, people thought that only white swans existed. In the financial world, a black swan event is seen as an event that negatively impacts the stock market, catching investors off guard. Recent examples include the dot.com stock market crash, and the housing crisis that caused recession. Hope that as I stand in proximity of a ga-zillion dollars worth of real estate, their rare visit is not a forewarning of some future event.
Welcome to summer… Hurricane season. It’s muggy and buggy, and hot as a hairdryer. I love summer. Two things you need to live in the Keys: air conditioning and mosquito control.
How did the first settlers of the Keys survive the mosquitos? The Indians smeared mud on themselves, and created strong smelling pastes from mint and sweetgrass, or rubbed rancid alligator fat on their bodies to “hide” from mosquitos. They also used smoke from campfires to ward them off, and chose campsites that were windy and dry.
Mosquitoes are two-winged flies that live everywhere except areas that are permanently frozen. The Aedes aegypti, known as the “container bred mosquito”, prefers urban areas rather than forests. Aedes aegypti make up just 4 percent of the local mosquito population, but cause 100 percent of mosquito-borne illnesses, for which there are no human vaccines… Dengue, Zika, West Nile, encephalitis, and Chikungunya.
The black salt marsh mosquito Aedes taeniorhynchus lives in the coastal salt marshes of the Everglades and Florida Bay; they emerge in large numbers after it rains., and are not a major vector of disease… though they may drive you crazy. In 1980, an old-timer Ken “Blinky” Vechan, whose father helped build the Flagler railroad, once told me: “There are just enough mosquitos here to keep the people out.”
One particularly unique structure in the history of the Keys is Perky’s Bat Tower. once located on Lower Sugarloaf Key. Originally owned by an English sponge farmer named C.W. Chase, the tower property was sold to Richter C. Perky who wanted to establish a fishing camp there. In 1929, as a solution to the pesky mosquito problem, Perky built a bat tower to house the mosquito eaters. Unfortunately, Mr. Perky’s thousands of dollars flew off, as quickly as the bats did, when he placed the bats in the tower. The bat tower succumbed to its final “swat” in 2017 by a lady named Hurricane Irma.
Another flying fiend, the dragonfly, provides great natural mosquito defense. Dragonflies live to eat mosquitoes and consume up to 100 a day! They live in areas near wetlands, ponds, or rivers and lay their eggs in mud or water. Invite dragonflies to your yard by installing a pond. You can also stock your pond with mosquitofish or Gambusia to eat mosquito larvae. Birds in turn, prey on the dragonflies, and Voila! … you’ve reduced the number of mosquitos, and created a pesticide-free natural environment that is full of life.
Citizens can exercise least toxic means to prevent mosquito breeding on their property by the following practices:
DRAIN: Empty flowerpots and trash containers. Flush outdoor plants such as bromeliads and crotons on a regular basis
DISCARD: Old tires, drums, bottles, cans, pots and pans, broken appliances
EMPTY and CLEAN: Birdbaths and pet's water bowls at least once or twice a week. Empty plastic swimming pools when not in use.
PROTECT: Boats and vehicles from rain with tarps that prevent them from holding water. Cover open gutters and plumbing pipes.
MAINTAIN: Maintain proper chemistry in swimming pools. Repair broken screens on windows, doors, porches, and patios. Place BTI (naturally occurring bacterium) in areas that hold water; it only kills mosquito larvae.
Think of the accumulation of toxins along the way when chemical pesticides are used in the landscape to keep our grass chinch bug free. The birds leave due to lack of food, and insecticide residue makes its way to our waterways, and indirectly to the fish and the lobster… our “bugs” of the sea.
Better living through science… how about genetically modifying the mosquito so it eventually dies out? In 2021, Oxitec released genetically modified mosquitos in the Florida Keys despite local opposition. During their study they collected 22,000 eggs, and found only male mosquitos made it to adulthood. They also found the Oxitec gene that killed female offspring lasted only 2-3 months. Mosquitos never go away; the problem requires constant management. Despite local opposition in the Keys, the government in 2022 approved another release of 2.4 million more genetically modified mosquitos in two states, Florida and California. I can’t help but wonder how many of these government decision makers have shares of Oxitec stock.
The big issue whenever you do any genetic manipulation is how will this impact the study species and the environment as a whole? Researchers from Yale visited an Oxitec experiment site in Brazil, surveyed the mosquitos and found Oxitec genetic markers in the reproducing population. That the gene is still in these mosquitos well after that trial was over suggests that they didn't all die out. The whole Jurassic Park hypothesis… the fear of what we could create? Perhaps a more resistant bug? Speaking of bugs… the modified mosquitos are treated with an antibiotic. Does that mean when they bite, they transmit that same antibiotic to you?
Call me old school… I’m willing to take precautions with wardrobe, repellant, mosquito coils, use netting to protect small children and even stay inside if need be.
This photographic website provides me the opportunity for self-expression, for sharing