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Kiss of the swamp angels

Mosquitoes are determined to skewer Roy Wood. But he survives by knowing his enemy.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2002


Mosquitoes are determined to skewer Roy Wood. But he survives by knowing his enemy.

FLAMINGO -- Roy Wood pulls on a heavy green jacket and drags a net over his face. Of course he is wearing long pants, sturdy shoes and sensibly thick socks. It's his uniform, his armor, so to speak, against the swamp angels.

Other people call them mosquitoes, but old-timers have always referred to them as swamp angels. In the summer, in the wet season, swamp angels make the Everglades a hell on earth.

"Ah," Wood says, deep in the hammock, his head engulfed in a black cloud of mosquitoes whose ravenous whines almost drown him out. "I somehow have a bunch of mosquitoes inside my net. Do I just endure their bites on my face? Or do I open my net and shoo them out?"

He endures the bites rather than risk letting more mosquitoes in. It's his job to explain nature to visitors at Everglades National Park. Here in the park's tiny community of Flamingo, at the southern tip of the peninsula, mosquitoes dominate nature. In the summer, Wood seldom encounters a tourist who doesn't look shell-shocked. Visitors have never experienced such mosquitoes.

"Stay off the grass," he warns a welt-covered German couple. "Stay out of the shade. That's where the mosquitoes are."

"Ja," says the woman, nodding in the affirmative. "JA!"

Maybe next summer she and hubby will vacation at the Munich beer garden instead.

Billions and billions of bites

In most places in the South, people are worried, perhaps too worried, about the mosquito-borne West Nile virus. It has never been a problem in Everglades National Park, where folks are more properly concerned about being eaten alive by the uncountable hordes. Nobody here disagrees with the old folk wisdom "Swing a quart jar and catch a gallon of mosquitoes."

The park has 43 mosquito species, including 13 that bite people. The worst biter, and one that has never been blamed for spreading disease, is the salt marsh mosquito. It's the swamp angel that lives in mangroves and the tropical hardwood forests of the Florida coast. Small and brown, salt marsh mosquitoes bite night and day. When they're thick enough, as in the Everglades, it's possible to breathe them in. Wood has been bitten inside the nostrils and inside his mouth.

"I don't have a shirt that doesn't have a blood stain," he says. "And you should see the books in my office. Every page has a mosquito smudge."

When he is lucky, Wood stays indoors, upstairs, in the park's visitor center. To call on him, you go through a screen door. Just as the door opens, a blast of air blows the tag-along mosquitoes away from you.

It's an old-fashioned Everglades technique made modern. Years ago, any self-respecting Everglades house featured a "losing room," where palm fronds knocked the mosquitoes off the hardy pioneer as he stepped through the doorway.

"Mosquitoes still find a way into the visitor center," Wood says. "They'll come through a hole in the screen or even a crack in the door." Behind him is a sign that provides the day's mosquito forecast. The forecast can range from "enjoyable" to "hysterical"; today it's merely "unpleasant."

It's unpleasant in the parking lot. But if you go anywhere near the bushes, or worse, the mangroves or the shady hammock forests, you are in for a hysterical experience.

Wood is the kind of guy who tempts fate.

Welcome to the Everglades

He's 37, an Indiana boy who grew up catching birds and snakes and turtles, and driving his poor ma wild. Later, he studied archaeology at Indiana State and spent a summer as a park ranger at the Grand Canyon. One summer led to another, and after he graduated, he joined the National Park Service for good.

He can remember his first visit to the Everglades, a dozen years ago. It was November, not even mosquito season, when he drove his car to his new apartment in Flamingo at dusk. As he unloaded his luggage, mosquitoes treated him like their private blood bank.

"My God!" he thought to himself. "What have I done?"

Inside the apartment, he peeked out the window and steeled himself for another sprint for the suitcases in the car.

His new roommate, a former surfer from California, talked him out of it.

"Don't even think of it, dude," the surfer said. "Wait until tomorrow."

It was good advice.

"When you live down here," Wood says now, "your whole life revolves around avoiding mosquitoes. "

Once a week he drives 38 miles to the nearest town, Homestead, for groceries. In the supermarket parking lot, he is careful to pack the perishables last. Back in hell, bedeviled by swamp angels, he unpacks the perishables first. If mosquitoes are bad, he leaves in the car the groceries that don't need refrigeration. They can wait until the next day, maybe until midday, when the mosquitoes might be lazier.

The people who work at Flamingo sneer at mosquito hysteria elsewhere in Florida. Yes, West Nile virus can be fatal, but it almost never is, and it seldom even makes people sick. It's rarer than a shark attack, yet the media are in their own feeding frenzy about this summer's mosquito danger.

You want to see some mean mosquitoes?

Roy Wood can show you mean mosquitoes.

Mastering the Flamingo Flush

In the visitor center he grabs his mosquito jacket -- a bulletproof vest against swamp angels -- and another for his guest. They leave the safety of indoors and walk briskly through a modest mosquito cloud to Wood's Plymouth van. He drives into a park campground empty except for a squadron of mosquito-eating dragonflies. Most people know better than to camp here during mosquito season.

At the end of the campground is a shady hammock. Wood parks about a hundred feet away. Inside the van he and his guest don their armor.

The whine in the woods: It's created by millions of voracious mosquitoes beating their wings 600 times per second. They're females, the biters, and they need blood to produce their eggs. Even when protected, most humans can't stand it very long.

Run!

"At Flamingo," Wood says, giggling, "we always give ourselves enough room to run. The idea is to shake off the mosquitoes before you get in the car."

That little encounter is a modest one. The worst place in the Everglades, perhaps in the world, is a hammock about six miles away. It's called Snake Bight Trail. Yes, snakes live at Snake Bight, though you never see them, probably because they are intimidated by mosquitoes. When U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists test new repellents, they come to Snake Bight.

Wood suggests a saunter at Snake Bight.

"They're going to be more aggressive here," he warns. No kidding. They hover, they dive bomb, they land. They find a tiny crevice, the dime-size spot not covered by netting, and find a patch of bare, succulent skin into which they can drive their needles. "I'm not allergic to the bites anymore," Wood says, "unless they get me between the toes or between the fingers. Then I scratch like anybody else."

Bravely, but more likely foolishly, he withdraws his bare right hand from a pocket. In seconds, it's covered, back and front, by mosquitoes. "Now we run for the vehicle," he says.

The mosquitoes, perhaps driven mad by Wood's blood, stay with him stride for stride. At least 100 end up inside the Plymouth.

"Now we do the Flamingo Flush," he says. He hits the gas. When his speed reaches 55 mph he yells: "Open the doors."

It takes three Flamingo Flushes to blow out most of the mosquitoes.

Don't wait until dark

The Calusa people who once ruled the southern Everglades built smoky fires out of black mangroves to thwart mosquitoes. Later, the pioneers built houses over the water on stilts and cut down the mangroves to remove mosquito habitat. Modern dwellers in Flamingo live in air-conditioned apartments.

They place mosquito netting over their wall-unit air conditioners. Otherwise, the mosquitoes find a way in. Not long ago, the mosquitoes discovered a hole in the netting of Wood's AC. In the middle of the night, he had to pitch his tent on the bed. He and his Border collie, Darwin, managed to catch a few undisturbed winks.

You'd think Wood might loathe mosquitoes. He values them. Some pollinate plants. But for the most part, they are key to the food chain, nourishing everything from bats to barn swallows. Wood is part of the mosquito food chain.

Recently, the park service bought new mosquito equipment for the employee neighborhood. Mosquito Magnets, which cost about $1,000, emit heat, carbon dioxide and a mosquito attractant. When the mosquito lands, it's vacuumed into the machine and dies.

Mosquito Magnets have become a popular backyard accessory in Florida suburbs. The park service has placed 16 among the apartment buildings at Flamingo.

During the summer, Mosquito Magnets work overtime. Inside each machine is a bag roughly the size of a coffee can. Each bag can capture a quarter of a million mosquitoes. In normal places, a suburbanite never has to change the bag more than once a year, if that. But this is Flamingo, Everglades National Park. Roy Wood changes bags twice a day. Otherwise, the mosquitoes burn out the machinery.

"I guess the machines help a little bit," he says. "But you'll never see me outside barbecuing."

The other park weaponry is chemical. Around dusk, the mosquito control department sprays a powerful pesticide in the employee neighborhood. Any mosquito foolish enough to fly into the mist is killed instantly. The park's other billions and billions of mosquitoes escape. At the same time, seeing the battle taken to the mosquitoes makes some employees feel better. They walk through the spray as if it's holy smoke.

Not Wood. He dislikes chemicals and never even wears repellent. He prefers heavy clothing, netting and courage.

As the spray truck passes, spewing poison, he watches quietly from inside his van. Then he hears it. A whine. Another whine. Inside the Plymouth, the swamp angels couldn't be safer from the wicked pesticides outside.

Time for another Flamingo Flush.

Backyard tactics for mosquito control

Here are tips for eliminating mosquito breeding sites:

1. Dispose of cans, bottles and plastic containers. Store items to be recycled in covered trash cans or plastic bags.

2. Do not leave garbage can lids upside down. Do not allow water to collect in garbage cans.

3. Flush birdbaths and plant trays twice weekly.

4. Store pet food and water bowls indoors when not in use.

5. Treat areas that cannot be drained, such as fish ponds, with mosquito "dunks." Dunks contain bacteria that will kill mosquito larva and will not harm fish.

-- Washington Post

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