NOT Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 43

October 24-30, 2002

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Stalking the Wild Mosquito
by Alan Doelp

Much of my newly discovered interest in wildlife comes from Bill Burton. It was Bill, for example, who taught me that the sight of a goldfinch was worth the high price of thistle seed, and it was also Bill who showed me how to use peanuts to make friends with the squirrels.

I wish I could blame Bill for my mosquito debacle, but it is my own doing. All he did was point me in that direction.

The Squirrel Connection
But I digress. A couple seasons ago, Bill sat me down in his backyard and showed me how he had trained squirrels to take peanuts out of his hand. Until then, I had seen my squirrels as pillagers of the bird feeders and not much more. At Bill’s house, I realized that up close they are, well, sort of cute.

Back home I built a squirrel feeder, filled it with corn and sometimes peanuts, and before long I had half a dozen of the critters visiting my deck for snacks. Sitting in my Adirondack chair with a bag of peanuts, I taught them to come right up to me and take peanuts from my fingers. It’s not exactly Gunther Gabel-Williams, but a thrill nevertheless.

Spending time on the deck was a pleasant diversion, but inevitably it led to conflict with the mosquitoes. I live near wetlands, which means a steady supply of biting bugs. The more time I spent with the squirrels, the more time I spent scratching.

My Terminal Attractant
When I saw the ads for those automated mosquito-killing machines, I was instantly intrigued. Seems mosquitoes find you by smelling the carbon dioxide you exhale. These new devices convert propane into carbon dioxide, attracting the mosquitoes into a trap. Over time, they can do in the mosquito population in an area of half an acre or more.

But you can buy an awful lot of calamine lotion for the price of one of those machines. I continued to be interested but not really tempted, until one morning at my discount shopping club I spotted the gizmo priced a full hundred bucks less than the catalogs. A price capable of being reduced by $100 is pretty substantial, but I gulped, dug out the credit card, and made my impulse purchase.

When I opened the box, my first thought was that something had gotten in there and died. Only after I unpacked everything and started reading the instructions did I learn that the aroma was from little bricks of something called “terminal attractant.”

Seems that mosquitoes use your carbon dioxide emissions for long-distance navigation, but once up close they identify specific targets by smelling things like your breath. The “terminal attractant” bars give off chemicals found in human breath.

I have been around people who had those chemicals in their breath, but I must say I was offended to learn that in the mosquito’s world everyone smells like that. I had to fight the urge to run upstairs and gargle with Listerine.

Turns out several of our least-favorite smells are big turn-ons for mosquitoes. As I got further into the instruction book, I learned that some mosquito hunters have had good luck using dirty socks and underwear as terminal attractants.

In fact, according to my instruction book, mosquito hunting is as much art as science. You have to put the machine in just the right place, where it will be upwind of wherever the mosquitoes hang out, and downwind of the folks you are trying to protect.

This means you have to figure out where the mosquitoes are, and also which way the breezes are going to blow. In my neighborhood, the breezes tend to be light and variable. That was my first clue that this great automated mosquito killer was not going to be a fire-and-forget weapon.

I also discovered (I never saw this in the ads) that the gadget requires electricity as well as propane. Naturally, when I calculated what seemed to be the ideal spot for the device, it was nowhere near an electrical outlet. Back to the store for an extension cord. A long extension cord.

After three days of study and worry, I lugged the machine out into the back yard, set it beside some bushes where I figured mosquitoes might be hiding, hooked up a full propane bottle, wired in the electricity, programmed the onboard computer to run the machine day and night and retired to my deck to enjoy a mosquito-free summer.

Hubris of the Hunter
Nobody bothered to tell the mosquitoes. I sat on the deck, fed the squirrels, and got mosquito bites, just like before. Two or three times a day I inspected the clear plastic trap under the device for dead mosquitoes. There were one or two, but not the bucketsful I had expected. I put on a fresh propane bottle, loaded up another bad-breath mint, reprogrammed the computer to run the machine during mosquito rush hours — sunrise and sunset — and got more mosquito bites.

After a few weeks of this I stopped going out on the deck to feed the squirrels. Not that I had anything against the squirrels, but my arms and ankles cried uncle. I left some corn out for them, but peanut season was over.

The squirrels retaliated by chewing the propane hose off the mosquito trap. This could only have been an act of revenge, done with malice, forethought and I hope at some cost to the squirrel who did it. Certainly it was at some cost to the owner.

I bought a replacement hose, but I haven’t installed it yet. Instead I have let the machine stand idle, its “propane empty” indicator light blinking a coded warning about the price of hubris. I took off the trap and counted the dead mosquitoes.

Excluding the price of propane and the replacement hose, I put my cost at about $15 per dead mosquito. This is not, shall we say, cost effective. Give me $15 worth of Malathion and I will guarantee a better showing.

Most of the squirrels have taken their business elsewhere. One or two still come around, and I still toss them an occasional peanut or two, but I will wait until after the first hard freeze before I spend any serious time on the deck.

Round One to the mosquitoes.
When I take the machine inside for the winter, I’ll replace the hose, and before spring I’ll get the propane bottles refilled. Then, I’ll try again. I don’t have a choice. It’s a matter of honor to get my cost per mosquito down under $10, anyway. Maybe I’ll try the dirty socks next year.

While Bill Burton is up in Vermont getting back to his frostbitten Yankee roots, he’s shanghaied his friend, former Baltimore Sun reporter Alan Doelp, to fill his space.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly