Mosquito Control Inspectors Donate Bodies to Science

Mick Espaniel stood stoically as two bloodsuckers attached themselves to his cheek. Another pair were clamped to his pants leg. And others were eyeing the juicy section on the inside of his elbow.

I had doused myself in DEET, and still scratched my own elbow and slapped at my neck. And yet Espaniel, a 38-year-old mosquito control inspector for Miami-Dade County, stood stock still, then casually swept a couple of pests off.

Espaniel, a thoughtful pest expert who said he is just as easily bitten as anyone else, was conducting what they call -- in the business -- a Landing Rate test.

We had driven out to a mosquito infested mangrove swamp near on Key Biscayne. Leaving the car, we walked over a small knoll and onto a dirt path leading into a knot of mangroves. The dirt was pocked with crab holes, the air was crowded with cobwebs and hovering mosquitoes.

A Landing Rate Test, requires a Mosquito control inspector to stand on mosquitoes' home turf and donate his body to science. Without protection, without even a long sleeve shirt, Espaniel is tasked with counting how many mosquitoes land on his body in a minute. We stayed out for about 10 minutes. Within a minute he has a pretty good idea.

"They're attracted to the carbon dioxide we exhale, so they flock to you pretty quickly," he said, as I immediately tried to hold my breath. They are also attracted to dark colors -- there was little I could do about my jeans.

It was a losing battle.

Having harassed man and beast for the past 100 million years or so, mosquitoes perfected their technique over time. According to Sandra Fisher, the director of Miami's mosquito control division when they bite, mosquitoes first inject their victims with an anesthetic -- so you don't realize they've just sunk a stinger into you. They then release a coagulant to prevent your blood from clotting and spoiling their feast. And that coagulant, and the immune system's response to it, causes the skin irritation.

Every day, inspectors around the country like Espaniel here and around the country use their bodies to determine the severity of mosquito infestations.

Giraldo Carratalla, a Miami Dade County mosquito control inspector conducts a landing rate count at a water treatment plant near the Everglades. On this day he gave the site a landing rate of 40, meaning he saw 40 mosquitoes near him each minute.

It may seem primitive, Fisher said, but "landing tests remain one of the best methods of determining mosquito density in a given area."

Mosquito control inspectors' tactics vary across the country, but generally include anything that will increase the chances of getting attacked: standing still; using no repellents; disturbing surrounding vegetation (letting them know you're there); conducting the test at dusk or dawn; and often going out with some exposed skin.

"I'd give this a landing count of six or eight, which is not bad," he said during our dawn landing rate test. That's because the county had sprayed the area a week previously.

Last time he had driven out to this swamp, which abuts Key Biscayne's Crandon Park Golf Course, "I looked down and my whole arm was black with mosquitoes. … I went wow and wiped them off." That's when he called in the cavalry; mosquito control aircraft which spray areas with pesticides.

He had 12 bites in that one arm alone.

"In that Landing Test, we had a landing count of about 30," he says. Instinctively I began scratching my arm. "Yeah I know it gives you the heebie-jeebies. … I guess part of it is psychological."

Did he know what he was getting himself into when he applied for the job?

"Yes, I thought it was a job I could get since I had pest control experience. And besides somebody has to do it, we've gotta make sure that we're providing this kind of service to the public," he said.

Espaniel recognized that landing tests are not an exact science. I pointed out that since he's alone, he doesn't know how many land on his back. "This is a rough estimate … but it gives you a pretty clear indication of how bad it is out here."

There's an alternative: light traps, which rarely give as good an indication of an infestation.

And there's a certain satisfaction in destroying mosquito colonies. "Nobody likes mosquitoes. You see your cockroach and ants at home. But mosquitoes actually enter your space, and cause pain and discomfort and keep you from going outdoors … so there's satisfaction in knowing that by spraying you're helping people get outdoors more."

And here's the answer to the age old question:

Why is it that I sprayed all over, but still the relentless, remorseless pests kept coming?

"Because they find the areas you haven't spayed. They'll find those spots," he said. "I saw a couple on your shirt just now, and then you stained your shirt wiping them off."

Indeed I did.

Heavy rains this spring and summer created countless breeding grounds that spawned mosquito infestations all the way up the eastern seaboard. It means it's been an especially itchy summer for mosquito inspectors -- calamine anyone?