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UNE Tries New Way to Cut Mosquitoes: Biological Controls
08/20/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Last week, state officials confirmed the presence Eastern Equine Encephalitis, or triple-E - in a sample of mosquitoes collected in York County in mid-July. This, they say, is the earliest the virus - which is potentially fatal in humans - has appeared in Maine. Today, the state announced that a second sample from the same area had also tested positive. All this adds to the ongoing concern among students and staff at the University of New England's Biddeford campus. It's a concern which has prompted a unique approach to mosquito control. Tom Porter reports.

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UNE Tries New Way to Cut Mosquitoes: Biological C Listen
 Duration:
4:10

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UNE Professor Noah Perlut, right, with student Brendan Emanuel, in front of a bird box.

"Our campus is completely surrounded by water, in all directions," says Noah Perlut, an environmental science professor at UNE. "The water bodies vary, from the Saco River on one side, to lots of forested vernal pools and wetlands, and all of them offer habitat for mosquitoes."

Tom Porter: "What does that make life like here?"

Noah Perlut: "Beautiful - first off, it's beautiful."

But this beauty comes at a price - namely the risk of being savaged as you walk between campus buildings. Senior Brendan Emanuel, a environmental science major, says mosquitoes go with the territory of being a student here.

"You're going to get bit regardless, and so that's why we kind of saw it here as an issue," Enamuel says. "And we wanted to take care of it and see what we could do about it - change that."

UNE's latest mosquito-fighting effort is a university-wide collaboration, says Professor Perlut.

"It started from discussions at the administrative level over concerns with public health and community health for infectious disease," Perlut says. "And the administration decided that spraying was not the right avenue, and engaged myself to get some students on board and create a program where we could focus on biological control of mosquitoes on campus."

IMG_0709By biological control, he means finding which of the mosquito's natural enemies could be used against it. Brendan Emanuel is one of the three students involved in the project.

"And so we ended up taking into account the bird populations around here, the bats, and then which plants that are native to the area that we could use to repel the mosquitoes," Emanuel says. "So it's sort of this triad to help control the large spread of the species."

"This is mint - it's very nondescript," says Phil Taschereau (left), UNE's master gardener, who is leading the horticultural offensive.

Taschereau says the the university has spent more than $1,000 on plants regarded by many as mosquito-repellent. They've been planted all over the 100-acre area of campus where most of the human activity occurs. For best results, he says it's best to rub the leaves against your clothes or skin as you walk past.

As we take a stroll, he points some of them out. Apart from the various mint plants, there's lavender, sweet fern and citrosa - with its lemony odor.

"If you smell it, it smells like citronella," he says, "and it doesn't take much - you brush up against it, or you just rub its leaves. It's very pleasant, it's not an offensive odor. And even the students are calling it the magical plant now."

The planting was done in the spring, and early indications are, it's making a difference. For example, he says, about 2,500 people attended conferences at the campus this summer, and for the first time there were no complaints about mosquitoes.

IMG_0704Apart from the plants, nearly 50 bird houses and bat boxes (right) were put up around campus earlier this summer. A short walk over to the sports fields reveals a number of them mounted on posts. Professor Perlut - an ornithologist by training - says there are two species of birds native to this region that include mosquitoes in their diet.

"And those two species are tree swallows and blue birds, to a lesser extent," he says. "And so, fortunately, both of those species can be attracted with habitat, and that habitat is really bird boxes. And the boxes have to especially designed for these species, and also to exclude other species that might try to use them, and strategically placed in areas they like - open areas with access to food, which we hope will be, obviously, mosquitoes."

The boxes only went up about six weeks ago, he says, which is very late in birding season. Nevetheless, he adds, three of them have already been colonized. The bat boxes have yet to be occupied, but Professor Perlut is optimistic they will be by next summer. He stresses this project is still in its early stages.

IMG_0707"I think that our effort at this point has been widely successful in terms of education, showing that the university cares about this issue and is committed to do something," he says, "and, truthfully, do something that is not just getting rid of mosquitoes, but increasing bio-diversity on campus."

The project also involves collecting mosquito samples (left) at various points around campus. These will then analyzed to see if they include the variety that can carry infectious diseases like Eastern Equine Encephalitis. University officials say those results should be available in September.
Photos:  Tom Porter

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