Climate change, invasive species spur formation of mosquito control district

  • The Asian tiger mosquito is an invasive species that carries diseases also not native to New England, such as Dengue fever and the Zika virus. Susan Ellis/

  • An Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus. Pixabay

  • Getty Images/Hemera

  • Mosquito larvae. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Staff Writer
Published: 12/12/2017 11:15:10 PM

Every fall, mosquitoes lay their eggs in wetland areas, junkyards, clogged gutters, flower pots, catch basins and anywhere they can hide before hatching in the spring. Warm, wet winters improve their chances of survival and make outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases more likely.

To combat a looming public health crisis, community leaders in the Pioneer Valley are working together to form a new mosquito control district through the State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board. Forming such a district has financial and logistical barriers that stem partially from antiquated legislation, and also from the evolving threat of mosquito-borne illnesses in the era of climate change.

“I had to persuade people who are not used to mosquitoes being part of public health emergency work that mosquitoes belong in that category,” said Gregory Lewis, the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Planner for the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

Lewis has been working with Southampton Board of Selectmen chairman Charlie Kaniecki since 2012, a particularly bad year for West Nile and EEE, on a petition to form a Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District. The State Reclamation and Mosquito Control Board approved their petition on Oct. 18 this year. If all goes according to plan, they will become one of 11 existing mosquito control districts in the state by springtime.

“I am thrilled this process has actually gotten this far,” said Lewis, who earned a master’s degree in regional planning from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2015. “It’s difficult to get towns without a county government to see the benefits of regionalization.”

Interest in forming a mosquito control district piqued during the 2016 Zika outbreak, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded about $60 million to U.S. states and territories fighting the outbreak. That year, after a small pilot study proved West Nile virus was present in the Pioneer Valley, Northampton, Deerfield, Greenfield, and East Longmeadow hired a private company, Vector Disease Control International, for surveillance, trapping and treatment of mosquitoes.

“We needed to map this out,’ said Lewis. “We need to understand how much risk is in the Valley and where.”

The benefits of forming a SRMCB district include access to the only mosquito-testing laboratory in the state (located in Jamaica Plain), insect-killing adulticide spray, egg-killing larvicides, educational resources, and a coordinated means of communicating and addressing risk.

According to University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiology professor Stephen Rich, the biggest threat to Massachusetts is the spread of West Nile virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or EEE. While West Nile virus is more common and manageable, EEE is rare, virtually untreatable and often fatal.

“A high percentage of cases that end up in the hospital are fatal,” Rich said of EEE.

However, Rich notes that the number of mosquito-borne diseases pales in comparison to the frequency of tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease. Between 10 to 30 percent of ticks carry some sort of transmittable disease he says, while mosquitoes spread illness with far less frequency.

Early detection of disease-carrying mosquito populations is key to proper mosquito management, which is why resources provided by a state-sponsored mosquito control district are crucial. Targeted spraying, a tactic some say is overused by some mosquito control districts, plays an important role in controlling sudden outbreaks, but reliance on the chemicals is unsustainable.

“I want to make that clear, this district is not about adulticide spraying,” Lewis said.

Adulticide spray, without proper monitoring, can be harmful to fish, bees and other wildlife, according to Heidi Ricci, a senior policy analyst with the environmental nonprofit Mass Audubon.

“The optimal form of mosquito control is personal protection because there’s always going to be mosquitoes no matter what we do,” Ricci said.

Rather, Northampton direct of public health Merridith O’Leary says the district plans to use larvicides, pieces of bacterium that serve as a deadly food source for infant mosquitoes, targeted at popular mosquito breeding grounds like catch basins as a less harmful control method. Those in combination with a robust education and awareness campaign will hopefully prepare the Pioneer Valley for what could be a nasty mosquito season come springtime.

Asian tiger mosquito

Meanwhile, climate change is pushing an invasive species, the Asian tiger mosquito, Aedes albopictus, northward and bringing with it the potential for a host of diseases new to Massachusetts like the Zika virus, Dengue fever, and Chikungunya virus. Late last summer, mosquito traps set by Vector found tiger mosquito eggs in Northampton, raising more red flags for the season to come. Alarmed by these results, the state intervened and set 10 traps of their own and have been continually monitoring for different species and diseases ever since.

“Mosquitoes are definitely expanding their range further north as conditions warm,” Rich said. “The Asian tiger is of particular importance because it is a very aggressive, human-biting mosquito.”

Native to the subtropical areas of Southeast Asia, A. albopictus are identified by distinctive white stripes along their legs and body. They been found in over 900 counties in 26 states, according to statistics by the University of California Riverside’s Center for Invasive Species Research.

Worse yet, adulticide chemical sprays, used as the last line of defense against disease-spreading mosquito outbreaks, generally do not work against A. albopictus.

“That is a public health game changer if they are established here,” O’Leary said. “This is a hard mosquito to control. The known treatments out there are not effective with this species of mosquito.”

Late last summer, O’Leary said an alarming number of traps tested positive for West Nile virus as well.

“What is surprising is that we didn’t have any human cases in the area given the number of specimens we were collecting,” O’Leary said.

In Northampton, prime mosquito breeding grounds were found along Easthampton and Ellington roads. Traps set there collected an upwards of 2,000 mosquitoes in the past year, far beyond the Center for Disease Control’s threshold of 200 for what constitutes a dense breeding ground.

On problem often unaddressed by traditional mosquito management boards is the role manmade infrastructure plays in managing mosquito populations. Applying larvicide to storm drains is one way to mitigate the problem, but building infrastructure that does not collect still water is more important in the long term.

O’Leary says that Searles Auto Recycling on Easthampton Road could be to blame for the large population, as discarded tires tend to be mosquitoes’ favorite breeding ground.

Old laws, new tricks

Still, one of the biggest barriers to forming a mosquito control district is funding, O’Leary and Lewis agree. Traditionally, a formula based on geography and population size determined how much a community would pay to receive SRMCB-sponsorship. By this formula, O’Leary said Northampton would have to pay about $75,000 annually to be part of a mosquito control district.

“There was no way the mayor or city council was going to give me the money to buy into that,” O’Leary said.

To fix this, Lewis proposed a new payment mechanism, the first of its kind in the state, to fund the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District, Rather than paying a flat rate to the state, the menu-based service would allow for a pay-as-you go system, so communities only pay for the services they need and want.

“The licensure for pesticides, reporting and the interactions with the state are so expensive we can’t really afford to have someone on staff to be a specialist in that one area,” said South Hadley Town Administrator Mike Sullivan.

Greenfield, Deerfield, North-ampton, West Springfield, East Longmeadow, South Hadley, Palmer, and Montague have already expressed interest in joining the district, according to Lewis. Sullivan says he knows of at least 14 communities in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties that plan on joining.

“We would really like to see communities have the ability to say to the district what they want,” said Heidi Ricci, a senior policy analyst for Mass Audubon. “If they only want surveillance and public education, they should be allowed to get those services and not also have to sign up for the adulticide spraying.”

The next step, Lewis says, is choosing five representatives from any of the participating communities to sit on the volunteer commission, then finding a paid superintendent to run the district.

Each of the state’s 11 mosquito control districts is overseen by a board of commissioners approved by the state control board, and employs one superintendent to oversee day-to-day activities. Three representatives, one each from the state Department of Agricultural Resources, Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Recreation, chair the board.

According to Ricci, Massachusetts spends approximately $12 million a year on mosquito control, most of it going towards nuisance control instead of detection. Reform is needed, she says, regarding how districts are funded, the methods of controlling mosquito populations, and the makeup of the control board.

Ricci, who has over 25 years working in mosquito control, says a representative from the Department of Public Health, the agency that tests disease-bearing mosquitoes, should also sit on the control board.

“If the whole program is about protecting public health, it makes no sense that the DPH is not on the reclamation board and has no authority over mosquito control operations,” Ricci said.

Another problem with current legislation, Ricci says, is that state-sponsored mosquito control boards are exempt from the Wetlands Protection Act, allowing them to spray harmful chemicals and alter wetlands without permission from the Wetlands Conservation Commission.

Lewis’ proposed new system addresses these concerns, while keeping in mind the Valley’s aversion to adulticides. He wants to take a more environmentally friendly approach to mosquito control, while taking into account the urgency of the threat.

“I’m excited to see how it comes together because funding these things is critical,” said Professor Rich. “I think it’s the proper way to go, to sort of pay as you go rather than relying on money that might not always be there.”

Looking forward, Lewis plans to apply for a second grant to purchase monitoring equipment and other essential tools, the first having funded his position as Public Health Emergency Preparedness Planner. He says he does not know if he will serve on the Pioneer Valley district’s volunteer commission, but that he would be honored if nominated and chosen.

“I’d be honored to serve on the commission in my private time,” Lewis said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at
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