Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series looking at various public health safety issues through the eyes of the people who are on the front lines.
Kenna Graham may be the only guy in Hinesville who works to get inside the collective heads of mosquitoes.
"I think about them every day," Graham said. "I’ve become fascinated by them."
Graham’s studies are part of his job as Hinesville’s mosquito control coordinator. He’s also vice president of the Georgia Mosquito Control Association.
"I love my job, I’m lucky to have it," Graham said.
That fascination led Graham to respect the mosquito, usually regarded at best as a nuisance and at worst a menace to public health.
"They’re actually an intelligent species," Graham said. "It’s just the females that bite, and one of the reasons is because they’re trying to get protein to feed their babies."
And, Graham pointed out, mosquitoes are not really biting. They instead are making a small incision in the skin into which they inject a saliva that
acts as a blood thinner. That’s what makes you itch, and that’s what can carry diseases.
It’s the mosquitoes’ role in transmitting diseases that makes them potentially deadly. In recent years there’ve been widespread concerns over such diseases as West Nile virus and, currently, Zika, which started in South America and has since spread to South Florida.
So far, Hinesville doesn’t have the mosquito that transmits Zika, Aedes Egyptia, but Graham said it does have their cousin — Aedes Albopictus, more commonly known as the Asian tiger mosquito.
In all, Graham said there are 10 species of mosquito that call Hinesville home, though one, Aedes Vexans, common woodland mosquito, hasn’t been spotted in the city in about 10 years due primarily to development.
Graham leads a two-person, two-truck department that he said spends about $40,000 annually to keep the other nine species at bay through a combination of trapping, testing, education and insecticides, both natural and man-made.
And while many may think the best defense is driving through neighborhoods spraying pesticide, that isn’t always the smart option.
"In the past we’d just go out and start spraying if we got a complaint," said Graham, who’s been on the job for four years after working in the city’s parks and trees department. "But what if it wasn’t even a mosquito that caused the complaint, maybe it was a gnat or a fly. So let me come out and check, because we need to be more careful in what we do."
While the city still sprays permethrin to kill adult mosquitos, it’s not something they do without first checking the problem and ensuring people aren’t nearby.
"I’d rather have someone complain about a truck that wasn’t spraying than one that sprayed on somebody," Graham said.
Mosquitoes have been known to build up a resistance to pesticides, which rarely kill all mosquitoes. Indiscriminate spraying can also kill bees and other beneficial insects that can help keep the mosquito population down, such as dragonflies, a natural predator of mosquitoes.
For Graham, the best way to kill mosquitoes is to get them while they’re young. Or don’t raise them at all. Twice yearly, Graham treats the city’s 1,200 storm drains and other waterways with briquettes of Bti. Bacillus thuringienisis israelensis is a natural bacteria that is toxic to mosquito larvae. It’s 100 percent effective, Graham said.
It’s just one measure in the department’s arsenal. Graham also monitors traps and has a direct line to Rosemarie Kelly, an entomologist for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
She said mosquitoes serve as both a minor pollinator and as a food source for bats, bids and small fish.
Graham said the most important weapon in the war against mosquitoes is the public.
"People aren’t helpless in this fight," he said. "In fact, they play a major role in it as far as what they’re doing in their environment, in their backyards."
The simplest way to keep mosquitoes from breeding is to dump water. Hundreds of mosquitoes can spring from a single bottle cap full of water.
"The mosquitoes we’re concerned about, they don’t fly too far from their breeding habitat, so it’s that environment within a few feet that’s important," Graham said. "After it rains, go outside and turn over those containers, and keep them turned over, or put some kind of treatment in it like Bti, which is sold commercially. If you have a birth bath, put a larvicide in it."
Graham, who uses a microscope to identify mosquitoes caught in local traps before they’re sent to the University of Georgia to be tested, has a bit of a detective in his blood. He said he’s hopeful he may someday contribute to finding a way to stop Zika.
"I’m not a scientist, but I’d like to be able to say I helped find a way to stop Zika from spreading," he said.