1. News

One mosquito. Two mosquito. Three mosquito. Four. How they count the bloodsuckers in Hillsborough (w/video)

RUSKIN — Start the clock. One minute.

Joseph Shiver sticks out his arms, palms up. First comes the sweat. Then the mosquitoes.

And he counts them.



Shiver doesn't flinch when they bite. Doesn't swat them from his face. Doesn't wait for them to land, then SPLAT!

He just counts.

Three. Four. Five. Six.

• • •

Shiver, a senior crew leader with Hillsborough County, is on the front lines of this area's mosquito wars. Though it may seem decidedly low-tech for a battle waged largely with complex chemicals, counting mosquitoes on the meaty arms of an ex-butcher is a key way to survey the enemy.

"They're only taking about a bucket," Shiver deadpans as the bloodsuckers swarm.

It's the job of Shiver, 35, to go where mosquitoes are known to congregate — ditches with standing water, flooded lakes in Lutz, or, on this day, a shady spot near the mangroves at E.G. Simmons Regional Park.

He stands in place for 60 seconds and counts how many of the insects land on him, a measure known as a "landing rate.'' Done again and again over weeks, months and even years, the method allows officials to measure the mosquito population trends of a given area.

If the landing rate is higher than normal or higher than elsewhere, it may mean the area needs to be sprayed, either by foot or truck or sometimes from the sky.

The goal is to spray as much as necessary, but only as much as needed, said Ron Montgomery, operations manager for Hills­borough County Mosquito Control. The philosophy is dictated by a state law that tries to prevent overuse of chemicals. That's where the counts come in.

"If you were a law enforcement officer and you have five high-crime areas, you're going to start with your highest crime area and then work down to the lowest and try to solve the problem," Shiver said. "We're trying to do that."

Calculating landing rates is one way the state allows counties to monitor levels for spraying. The other is static mosquito traps.

Montgomery's team uses traps, too. There are 60 of them around the county. But there are 1,100 square miles to keep tabs on in Hillsborough. Sending Shiver or one of his 13 colleagues out as live bait for a minute a few times a day is a lot cheaper. And nearly as accurate, he says.

"The beautiful thing about that is it doesn't require a lot of equipment or a lot of time," Montgomery said. "It's a 60-second snapshot."

• • •

Shiver knows what the next question is before it's asked.

"Aren't you afraid of Zika?"

It's the question of the summer.

Apparently, it's a stupid question, but he entertains it anyway.

Shiver's not afraid because of what he has learned since he first joined county mosquito control in 2012 as a Winn Dixie meat cutter-turned-Department of Transportation utility man.

Back then, he thought, "there was one kind of mosquito and they all bite."

In fact, there are 47 species of mosquito in Hillsborough County. Shiver can now spot many of them at a glance.

Aedes aegypti, the carrier of the Zika virus that has caused a state of emergency in Florida, is one of the 47.

But you won't find Aedes aegypti in the mangroves off Ruskin's shores or near lakes in Lutz. Aedes aegytpi prefer to lay their eggs in flooded flower pots and bird baths in densely populated neighborhoods.

"A used tire is a six-star hotel for Aedes aegypti," Shiver said.

The skeeters circling Shiver are Aedes taeniorhynchus. They're a nuisance, but not scientifically proven to carry diseases.

The county isn't sending its mosquito control crews to count mosquitoes where there might be Aedes aegypti. Besides being impractical to enter back yards to test landing rates near abandoned pools, they're not putting workers at risk, Montgomery said.

There are many other aspects of Shiver's job as a senior crew leader besides these counts, from sharing awareness literature and writing health department reports to checking traps and overseeing spraying.

Mosquitoes are a part of life here, he said. That's not something he learned studying them. Shiver has an advanced degree in Florida humidity, earned living and working on the same 40-acre east Hillsborough farm he grew up on.

"I've been getting bit my whole life."

• • •

The alarm sounds. A minute is up.

Shiver surveys the damage. More than 30 mosquitoes landed on him in those 60 seconds.

In some parts of Hillsborough, that would be a lot. Not at E.G. Simmons Park, a "super producer" of mosquitoes, Montgomery said.

A week after Hurricane Hermine drenched Florida's west coast, 30 mosquitoes in 60 seconds is a big improvement. During the weekend, the county sprayed Ruskin's shores with larvae-killing chemicals that likely prevented the development of millions of mosquitoes that hatched after the storm.

If they hadn't?

"You wouldn't have been able to open the door to the truck because 50 will fly in the cab," Shiver said.

As he heads back into the Ford F-250, he's unfazed by the stragglers clinging to his county work polo. He doesn't scratch. No bite marks have appeared and he doesn't think they will.

Instead, he notes the blood donation he made to nature as he leaves.

"I'm going to need a coke and a chocolate chip cookie so I can drive back."

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.