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Pinellas races to fight flying pests

With more than three months remaining in 2004, the Tampa Bay area's rainfall has already topped 2003 totals for the entire year.

So far, 52.04 inches have fallen on soggy ground.

It's a fact only a mosquito could love. Standing water in fields, full retention ponds and backyard puddles make perfect breeding grounds for the little suckers.

With recent power outages and debris to clean up, residents are spending more time outdoors, increasing their chances of contracting mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis.

"Five sentinel chickens in three different locations in the county tested positive for West Nile in August," said Nancy Page, program manager for Pinellas County Mosquito Control. Florida has reported 30 cases so far this year and two deaths, most in the Miami-Dade area, she said.

In response, the county is stepping up efforts to manage the burgeoning mosquito population.

By land and by air, crews are spreading larvicides to kill the insects before they grow up and become big enough to bite.

"We were out flying last week, hitting a lot of areas with standing water," Page said.

She said helicopter crews had been temporarily grounded by the expectations of gusty conditions from Hurricane Ivan.

Areas treated so far in North Pinellas include Honeymoon and Caladesi islands, Hammock Park in Dunedin, Largo Central Park Nature Preserve, the Wai Lani Girl Scout Camp in Palm Harbor, the Keystone Road area and Brooker Creek Preserve.

In southern Pinellas, areas treated include the War Veterans Memorial Park, the Bay Pines VA Medical Center area and the Feather Sound area.

Ground crews are also responding to complaints from homeowners who have seen greater numbers of the unwanted guests. They have been treating the small ponds with granular larvicides or a spray liquid called Agnique, a biodegradable larvicide that causes the pests to drown.

"All these products are harmless and won't hurt humans or wildlife," Page said.

The mosquito busters are also inspecting backyard-breeding areas, such as plants, flowerpot basins, garbage cans and lids and other containers.

One big culprit is the seemingly innocent and beautiful bromeliads, plants with large, thick, waxy leaves with a bowl-shaped center. Some bromeliads can hold several gallons of water and are miniature ecosystems in themselves, providing homes for creatures including frogs and their tadpoles, salamanders, snails, beetles and mosquito larvae. Those that die decompose and provide the plant with nutrients.

"Bromeliads are horrible breeding grounds, and most homeowners don't realize it," Page said.

State health and county mosquito control officials urge residents to take preventive measures:

+ Check screens and repair rips and tears.

+ Avoid being outdoors around dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes are most active.

+ Use mosquito repellent and cover as much skin as possible with clothing.

+ Eliminate standing water from containers and areas near air conditioners, septic tanks, rain gutters and plumbing drains.

+ Flush plants, birdbaths and wading pools weekly.

+ Change outdoor pet dishes daily.

+ Keep pools adequately chlorinated.

+ Stock ornamental ponds with mosquito-eating fish.

+ Cover rain barrels with mesh screening.

+ For ponds, purchase mosquito dunks, chunks of slow-releasing pesticides that float on water. They are available at home improvement stores.

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