By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Holly and Steve Hartell moved to a 1940s Alexandria farmhouse so their two daughters and dog Grady could have a big corner lot to play in. But daughter Nellie, 5, kept getting attacked by Asian tiger mosquitoes, out for blood even during daylight hours.
"She had welts the size of quarters," says Holly Hartell. "She told me she didn't want to go out there."
August is peak mosquito season in the Washington area. Lighting a citronella candle and praying, or tucking a dryer sheet inside a bra (an urban-legend mosquito repellent) aren't enough for a growing number of local households. Many families are tired of having to spritz their legs with DEET every time they go out to get the newspaper. Some, like the Hartells, are bringing out the big guns.
Every 21 days from April through October, two men carrying backpack blowers and dressed in "Ghostbusters"-like get-ups of white Tyvek coveralls, goggles, respirators and gloves pull up to the Hartells' house in Del Ray. They are bug busters from Mosquito Squad, one of a handful of area spraying services that have opened in the past few years. For an annual fee of $699, the Hartells' property is treated with encapsulated pyrethroid, a longer-lasting, synthetic form of pyrethrum, the botanical-based insecticide derived from chrysanthemums. They spray in the dark and shady places where mosquitoes hide, including under bushes and decks and along the foundation and fences.
Del Ray and other neighborhoods are abuzz over trucks sporting such names as InsectMist and Seasonal Changes. Sick of ruined cookouts and play dates, some homeowners have decided to kill mosquitoes rather than repel them. "This area has a long history of mosquito problems," says Greg Baumann, vice president and senior scientist for the National Pest Management Association. "People would leave Washington in the summer because of mosquitoes."
Residential spraying has been around for years in buggy Southwestern states, where builders at some high-end developments are installing misting nozzles as part of new construction. Some consumers are alarmed by the possibility of mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile virus and malaria; others just want to reclaim their yards.
Locally, business is on the rise. The two Mosquito Squad franchises that opened here two years ago have more than 550 customers. Karl Hubig, a Brookland builder, started InsectMist three years ago and has more than 100 clients. Hubig does lots of one-time sprays at weddings and vacation homes; he even sprayed the lawns of the British Embassy.
"Almost all of our clients are referrals," says Hubig.
Thomas Eckert, owner of Seasonal Changes Lawns and Landscapes in Crofton, went into the business because of the agony mosquitoes inflicted on his dog.
Most companies offer a menu of services. Among them is a contract to spray at set intervals (usually two to four weeks) during warm weather; an automatic misting system installed in the yard with brief timed-release sprays ($2,500 and up to install, plus a maintenance charge); and one-time sprays for special events (from $200).
"My wife screams when she sees a bug," says Nick Barbarine, who built a home in Potomac on a wooded lot near a creek and outfitted his property with an InsectMist system. The couple have a baby and a Labrador retriever puppy and like to entertain outside. Barbarine says the system is working great. "Everyone I've had over is amazed," he says.
Some may think spraying yards for mosquitoes is over-the-top, but even in lean times homeowners are willing to invest in a bite-free zone. With all the money they've sunk into outdoor living rooms with comfortable furniture, trophy grills and lighting, they don't want to spend time swatting, lighting citronella lanterns and slapping their ankles.
There's a bit of debate about misting systems and spraying. The Environmental Protection Agency considers pyrethrum and pyrethroids to be of low risk to humans when used as directed. Jeff Gillman, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota's department of horticultural science, says he can "think of much worse things to use."
Gillman's concern is that frequent spraying might kill helpful insects such as honeybees and ladybugs.
Joseph Conlon, a former Navy entomologist and the American Mosquito Control Association's technical adviser, is "not a huge proponent" of built-in misters, and his organization does not endorse them, though it is less concerned about the monthly or one-time sprays. He says any intervention with the 176 species of mosquitoes in the United States should be driven by surveillance.
"If you don't know the mosquito you are dealing with, you might be applying pesticides in the area where they aren't even found," Conlon says. He recommends oil of lemon eucalyptus, a repellent for the skin found in many natural-food stores.
Patrick Harders, co-owner of the Northern Virginia Mosquito Squad franchise, stands behind his product. "There is a lot of misinformation about pyrethroids. They have been used for years and years in flea and tick shampoo for dogs and sprayed on fruits and vegetables as they travel across the country," he says.
Jorge Arias, environmental health supervisor for the Fairfax County Health Department, bought a quart of permethrin (a pyrethroid insecticide) at a hardware store, hooked it up to his hose and sprayed it around his deck before a 90th birthday party for his mother.
"I was getting chewed up alive out there," he says. "But after I sprayed, we had such a good time because nobody got eaten up."