In the 17th and 18th centuries, residents and visitors to the Jersey Shore had little in the way of weapons to combat the world’s most dangerous creature: the disease-spreading mosquito. They lit wet fires outside their doorways in the evenings to repel the intruders (screens had not been yet been invented) and wore long sleeves, skirts and pants. A woolen bathing costume on display in the Giffordtown Schoolhouse Museum with its layers of fabric seems strange until we remember there were no chemical mosquito repellants to wear.
Although people still complain about “skeeters” today and are aware of new mosquito-born diseases, Ocean County’s mosquito control efforts have done much to make the shore area habitable.
Mike Senyk, assistant superintendent of the Ocean County Mosquito Commission, was the guest lecturer Saturday at the Giffordtown Schoolhouse Museum in Tuckerton that is home to the Tuckerton Historical Society.
The history of mosquito control started in the early 1900s when J.B. Smith, a lawyer turned entomologist, began to study the complex life cycle of mosquitoes, said Senyk. “He was instrumental in creating legislation that established mosquito control commissions or divisions in every county of New Jersey in 1913. Unfortunately, he died before he could see his work come to fruition.”
Although there are 40 different species of mosquito in New Jersey, along the shore the biggest problem is the salt marsh mosquito.
In the early 1900s, the mosquito commissions began to dig ditches in the salt marshes in a grid pattern with the hope that draining the marshes would take care of the problem. “But they didn’t understand how a salt marsh floods. It’s like a sponge. It soaks up water until it can’t hold anymore. At least twice a month during the full and waning moon the marsh floods and fills up what we call ‘potholes.’ It may take three days to do it. But even a big rainfall event can trigger a salt marsh mosquito infestation. So that’s when we (mosquito commission) get out there.”
Despite that, the early days of mosquito control depended on digging ditches. Senyk brought a specialized hand shovel that weighed about 40 pounds to show how tough the men digging the ditches needed to be.
In 1935, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps to put unemployed men to work. Over 2,650 camps were established across the U.S. including Camp MC 76 (Mosquito Control) in Manahawkin. It was located behind Manahawkin Lake off Oxycocus Road. Established in August 1935, 116 men were assigned to dig mosquito trenches. Their in-camp newsletter was called “The Skeeter.” Before the camp closed in October 1937, when the men were moved to Nevada, they put ditches in 34,000 acres of salt marsh. These grids of trenches are still apparent in today’s marshes.
Workers hired by the Ocean County Mosquito Commission often walked off the job after a few days. “They would build big fires to keep the insects away, but it was hard to get the workers to move away from the fires. Even so, it was hot and humid on the marsh,” related Senyk.
In 1953, the commission developed an amphibious ditch-digging machine to replace the manual labor and these machines are used today to make impoundments for larvae-eating fish.
When it was apparent that ditches were not completely eradicating the problem, the commissions looked to other means. “In the early days the mosquito commissions used to spread fuel oil on ponds. Then in 1945 they used DDT mixed with kerosene that was applied both by fixed-wing airplane and spread manually in catch basins. In 1948 the commission started a truck-mounted ‘adulticiding’ program, spraying DDT through neighborhoods.
“This may seem drastic, but there were 500 cases of malaria a year in New Jersey before the use of DDT,” said Senyk. Local historian Ron Mahr spoke up from the audience to say that prior to the World War I, there was an outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia.
In 1959 there was an outbreak of Eastern equine encephalitis that resulted in 18 cases in Ocean County and 10 deaths. That was the year the commission started nightly neighborhood spraying of DDT. Children used to follow the mosquito sprayer on their bikes, riding in and out of the clouds.
After DDT was banned in 1972 by the Environmental Protection Agency for environment reasons and a potential health threat, the commission used “Paris green,” a mixture of diesel fuel and arsenic and then melathion. Melathion is still is use for the occasional neighborhood and marsh spraying.
Today the commission maintains a large water management program and performs Open Marsh Water Management on the salt marshes of Ocean County.
But today’s mosquito control relies on killing the larvae of mosquitoes rather than the adults.
Mosquitoes start breeding in the salt marshes, freshwater ponds and backyard swimming pools as early as March and populations really take off in July, said Senyk. The eggs develop into larvae, also called wigglers because they can be seen wriggling as they hang down from the surface of still water. They are important sources of food for fish. “For some mosquito species it only takes four days to grow from egg to adult,” said Senyk.
Several species of mosquito-eating fish are used to stock areas of permanent water which breed mosquitoes. In the upland areas the commission utilizes five truck crews and two helicopters, which make a circuit of the county once every one to two weeks, visiting hundreds of known mosquito breeding sites in every municipality to inspect mosquito larvae. Any larvae found are then treated with an inactive bacteria, BTi, found to be specifically toxic to mosquito larvae.
Not all mosquito species bite people. “Their mouth parts are specific to their host. Some bite only birds, and there is a species that only bites frogs,” noted Senyk. Only females have biting mouth parts that allow them to get the blood meal they need to start laying eggs.
“And mosquito eggs can remain dormant in dry areas for 10 to 15 years until water reaches them,” said Senyk.
It seems the mosquito commission will never go out of business.
— Pat Johnson