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Prairies abuzz over mosquito invasion Bloodsucking swarms plague soggy West

Bloodsucking swarms plague soggy West

WINNIPEG, EDMONTON

he Prairies suffer under an unusually thick blanket of mosquitoes, probably the best measure of residents' frustration with the buzzing insects can be found in Glenda Whiteman's e-mail in-box.

The Winnipeg activist was arrested this week as she tried to stop city crews from killing mosquitoes with insecticide. Images of her sitting with a few other protesters in the path of municipal fogging trucks, and getting dragged away by police, were broadcast on the national news.

It hasn't exactly made her a local hero.

"You stupid bitch," one writer said. Another coarse message called her a "crazy freak."

Somebody else summarized the hate mail more intelligently: "If you want to sit inside all summer away from the onslaught of mosquitoes, that's your own choice," he wrote. "Don't push it on everyone else."

Complaining about mosquitoes is a favourite summer pastime on the Prairies, but there is good reason for the buzz this year.

Months of abnormally cool, wet weather in parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have hatched enormous swarms of nuisance mosquitoes.

"They're probably ten times higher than last year," said Phil Curry, an entomologist who monitors mosquito traps across Saskatchewan as that province's West Nile virus co-ordinator.

Chris Saunders, a biologist with the City of Edmonton, said he noticed a "huge increase" in the mosquito population. "We're looking at more mosquitoes right now than we've seen in a few years."

The phenomenon has also spread to the central United States, said Joe Conlon, a technical adviser for the American Mosquito Control Association, although he added that statistics are difficult to find.

"It's just a massive bloom of mosquitoes," Mr. Conlon said.

Ponds and drainage ditches that haven't filled for several years are brimming with water after recent rains.

Mosquito eggs can lie dormant along the water's edge for seven to 10 years waiting for such ideal conditions, Mr. Curry said, and the insects are emerging in droves.

Most of the mosquitoes caught by entomologists this year haven't been the type that carry West Nile virus. While big, annoying mosquito species such as Aedes vexans and Ochlerotatus dorsalis flourish in the current conditions, Mr. Curry said, it has been too cold for the smaller Culex tarsalis and other mosquitoes that carry disease.

Only four provinces have reported West Nile activity so far this year, with no human illnesses or deaths. "It's been slow, and maybe the weather is a factor," said Harvey Artsob, chief of zoonotic diseases at the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

The dangerous mosquitoes are starting to arrive, however. Manitoba's chief medical officer of health, Joel Kettner, announced "large increases" yesterday in the number of Culex tarsalis discovered in provincial traps: 192 last week, up from 21 during the same period last year.

In Saskatoon, parks officials haven't found any Culex mosquitoes so far. Whether the disease-carrying species becomes a major threat this year will depend on whether the Prairies continue to warm up, experts say.

Most parts of Western Canada have been unusually cool so far. Bob Cormier, an Environment Canada meteorologist in Saskatoon, said Saskatchewan and Manitoba were three degrees cooler than usual throughout June.

Southern parts of the Prairies also received 50 per cent to 100 per cent more precipitation than usual this spring, Mr. Cormier said, though some patches experienced different conditions.

Unlike Edmonton, which was awash with rainstorms in recent weeks, Calgary has experienced normal amounts of precipitation.

Andrew Gaffney, an entomology technician with the City of Calgary, said the cool weather in June resulted in normal -- or perhaps even less-than-normal -- levels of nuisance mosquitoes.

In Winnipeg, by contrast, city councillors say they've been flooded with e-mails and telephone calls demanding that crews continue spraying malathion, a chemical mist that kills mosquitoes.

They're even considering a motion that would cancel the opt-out program under which people who don't want their homes exposed to the chemicals can demand a no-spraying buffer zone.

In response, Ms. Whiteman and others who are concerned about the pesticide are planning a rally at city hall today.

"This year, the fight has escalated," she said.

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