2014-08-08 / Front Page

Project key to mosquito control

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – Interns and staff at the University of New England who oversee a program to control the mosquito population through biological means say the project is proving effective much earlier than expected.

Noah Perlut, assistant professor in the department of environmental sciences, said the administration approached his department after some mosquitoes in Biddeford were found to be carrying the West Nile virus in 2012.

Perlut said the administration wanted to engage with students and develop a program that would use holistic means to keep mosquitoes under control.

Landscaper and gardener Phil Taschereau, who works for the university’s facilities department, said the university has used chemicals to reduce mosquitoes, but only sparingly, and only when the school received a large number of complaints about the insects.

Intern Shane Murphy, 21, who is going to be a senior, said students and staff developed an integrated pest management plan last year that included installing bird and bat boxes around campus and putting plant boxes with mosquito-repellant plants near building entrances.

Perlut said the campus is particularly susceptible to mosquito outbreaks because the insects like areas with lots of moisture in the air.

“The geography of the campus is such that it’s surrounded by water on all sides,” Perlut said.

Last year, students spent an entire semester researching the most effective natural means to reduce exposure to mosquitoes, and in the summer began implementation.

Perlut said one of the most effective methods considered was the introduction of dragonflies.

The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife would not support that method however, said Perlut, because the only species of dragonflies that could be purchased are not native to Maine.

Additionally, said Perlut, biologists believe the surrounding habitat is already saturated with dragonflies.

Instead, said Perlut, students and staff decided to try encouraging predators of mosquitoes—such as bats, bluebirds, chickadees and tree swallows—to make their homes on campus and feast on the pests.

Perlut said boxes made specifically to attract bats, and others for birds, were installed on campus in June last year. Although the expectation was that it could take four or five years before bats would start moving in, Perlut said habitation of the bat boxes is already occurring.

Intern Chris Watt, 21, who is going to be a senior, said the bats were expected to take longer to move onto campus because they had been decimated by disease in recent years.

“A lot of bats are dead because of whitenose syndrome,” Watt said. “In eight years, it has killed about 90 percent of the population.”

Perlut said last spring however, while biologists were counting birds along the Saco River, a lot of bats were discovered and the population appears to be rebounding. In summertime, bats separate by gender, with females and their young settling in colonies while males wander on their own, Perlut said.

“There’s a group of shagbark hickory trees, and it’s one of their favorite places (for females to colonize),” Perlut said. “The bark peels off the tree and the female nudges up under the bark during the day (to sleep).”

Although 30 bat boxes were installed around the campus, Murphy said it can be difficult to determine how many bats are using them unless students discover the animals sleeping while monitoring the boxes.

Most likely they are used by wandering males who may not return to the same box each day, he added.

Of the 24 bird boxes placed on the campus however, Perlut said 14 have nests and chicks have already fledged out of six of them.

The adults and chicks are all banded to determine how many of them return in future years, Perlut said.

Perlut said the bird boxes had to be placed strategically around campus because the birds they wanted to attract are particular about their habitat.

“They want a very specialized habitat— open areas next to water,” he said, “and the campus is limited.”

One place that did fit those specifications, where a number of bird boxes were placed, are the outlying areas around an athletic field on campus.

Taschereau said the university planted a variety of mosquito-repellant plants in the 26 plant boxes including lavender, geranium, citronella plants and marigolds. Tomatos also planted in each box to encourage people to reach in and touch them, stirring up the active essence of each plant that is known to repel mosquitoes.

Perlut said after the bat, bird and plant boxes were installed last year, the university received no complaints about mosquitoes for the first time.

However, Murphy noted that part of the reason people didn’t complain was because information about the mosquito-reduction efforts were posted in visible locations.

“If you see something happening, you’re less likely to complain,” Murphy said.

In addition to helping monitor the biological controls of the mosquito population, Murphy and Watt also went to various Biddeford beaches several times a week this summer to educate beachgoers about nesting piper plovers.

The interns worked with York County Audubon to increase awareness about the federally endangered bird.

“We put posts up about the birds and talked to people about why (the plovers) are here and why there’s a metal enclosure cage,” Murphy said.

The cages are placed around nesting piping plovers to keep predators, including dogs, away from their nests, but have openings large enough for the birds to access.

Watt said as part of their plover education campaign, a telescope was set up to allow visitors, especially children, to get a glimpse of the birds from a distance.

Murphy said piping plovers nested this year at Fortune Rocks, Hills Beach and at Pine Point.

Perlut said there were fewer than 50 plover nests in Maine this year, but the plovers in Biddeford both fledged young birds.

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