Area experts say this could be the worst year yet for mosquitoes in Northern Virginia because of a heavy spring rainfall and recent warm weather, factors that have turned the area into a paradise breeding ground for the insects.
"There's every indication this could be a bad summer," said James F. Phillips of the Fairfax County Health Department. "All the rain we've had this spring 16.3 inches compared to a normal rainfall of 11 inches, according to the National Weather Service has created a lot of standing water where the insects breed."
To combat the anticipated hordes, Fairfax has appropriated $73,000 this year for a new mosquito control department that will spray problem areas.
"This is a result of complaints from citizens who wanted the county to take a more active role in combating mosquitoes," said John Clayton, the county's director of environmental health. In previous years the county Public Works Department sprayed mosquitoes intermittently and paid for the operation with department funds.
Alexandria and Prince William County also have insecticide programs, but Arlington County lets nature take its course.
"A few years back we fogged areas with chemicals, but we don't anymore because we don't get too many complaints," said Fred Louis, chief of Arlington's Park Division. "People who use our amphitheater sometimes have problems, but we simply suggest they use commercial repellents."
While mosquitoes may be annoying, experts say there is little danger of area residents contacting such diseases as encephalitis, malaria and yellow fever, which are transmitted by the insects from birds to humans.
"As a group, mosquitoes are the most serious disease carriers in the world," said E. Craig Turner, an entomology teacher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg. "But we are no longer concerned about malaria and encephalitis in this part of the world. We've waged such a successful war on mosquitoes there have been few cases of these diseases in the East Coast in many years."
Mosquitoes are food for birds and their larvae are eaten by minnows and other fish, making them an important part of the food chain. But Turner said mosquitoes are so abundant that spraying approved insecticides or larvicides has little effect on nature's food source.
Northern Virginia mosquito control officials said they spray as a last resort because it is more economical to stop mosquito breeding than to kill the adults. None of the jurisdictions that spray has decided what kind of spray to use this year. Officials said the brands being considered have been tested and proved safe to humans and animals.
"Spraying is used in the real bad swampland, but the best way to stop mosquitoes is to eliminate their breeding sources," said H.G. Shoemaker, director of environmental health in Alexandria.
The city, like other area jurisdictions, urges residents to eliminate standing water on their property by cleaning gutters clogged with leaves, removing vases and flower pots, overturning row boats and unused wading pools and throwing out old tires. But residents should be careful how they discard tires, which are mosquito control official's biggest headache. Water collected in tires is warmed by the rubber, creating a perfect breeding place.
Alexandria sends health officials to problem neighborhoods where they pinpoint breeding sources. "It could be as small as a paper cup," Shoemaker said.
Even if this summer's battle with the mosquito is as bad as predicted, residents may take comfort in Turner's rallying words. "There's no doubt we'll take many more of them this summer than they'll take of us," he said.