The buzz: With its two river watersheds, lakes, and flood plains, mosquitoes are a part of life in the Berkshires. There were even occasional malaria outbreaks until the 1940s, when the Berkshire Mosquito Control Project was launched. Thanks to many sensible steps (improved drainage ditches) and a few less sensible ones (widespread use of DDT), mosquitoes were brought under control. But with budget concerns and perhaps a little complacency, many towns dropped out of the state project, which now continues for its eight remaining communities. Christopher Horton has been project superintendent for six seasons, and with the help of his small seasonal staff does a variety of jobs — research biologist, public health advocate, policy director, and exterminator. Eagle correspondent Christopher Marcisz caught up with Horton at this Pittsfield office as the season of trapping, testing and deploying larvicides and pesticides gets underway.
Q Mosquito-born diseases are very much in the news now. How worried should people be?
A I think the unknown for people is the scariest thing. Zika is a very new thing and we don't know a lot about tit. It really only got on the radar last November in South America. Here, we don't have the vector — Aedes aegypti — which can't survive our climate. But there are lab studies to see if certain species carry certain pathogens, and those studies haven't yet been done on all the mosquitoes we do have. So basically we don't know. It's not an immediate emergency because south of us they have the same ones we have and their season started long before ours. We'd see something in the southern U.S. before here. Zika is different from West Nile and Eastern equine encephalitis because it goes from person to person. In that respect, it's a serious threat.
For the others, we've found West Nile here since we started looking for it [a few years ago]. It's nationwide, and really our role now is to manage it. You find it, and try to reduce the amount of it in the environment. Eastern equine has expanded. We'd never seen it in this area because no one was looking for it, but also people didn't understand that it could move here. But it is, so we try to identify it and try to respond to the situation where we find it.
Q What can people do to help fight mosquitoes?
A There are some basics. People used to stay out of mosquito environments. You didn't used to build houses near swamps or wetlands. You lived in open area with good air flow, partly to avoid mosquitoes because of the nuisance factor. As things developed, people moved closer to wetlands, putting themselves in mosquito environments.
If you have a house in a regular neighborhood, it's all about standing water. Birdbaths, swimming pools, flower pots, roof gutters, a boat — all these things will generate mosquitoes. In a lot of cases, if they breed in the container, those mosquitoes don't migrate. They'll stay there their whole lives, and the problem gets bigger. You need to eliminate standing water every few days, since they can lay eggs and hatch a new generation in a week's time.
But if you have wetlands nearby, it doesn't matter what you do. They'll find you.
Q Lanesborough is considering joining the eight Berkshire communities in the project. Is there a hope the district might expand?
A Yes. It's all about funding. During bad fiscal times, like around Proposition 2 1/2, towns were allowed to withdraw. By then, mosquito control was seen as just nuisance control, and some towns decided they could put up with the nuisance. And some towns have different levels of problem. Hilltowns, those without a lot of standing water, don't have the same level as floodplains.
Q Do you like your job?
A It's a great job. We work out in the best natural environments in the county. There's a whole variety of things we do, working in wetlands, getting outside, clearing ditches, surveillance, looking at nature to see what's going on. And there's a lot of outreach. We talk to people all the time. We'll be out working somewhere and someone will stop by to ask what we're doing and you talk about and explain the work, and that's part of the fun for me.
From my standpoint as superintendent, it's fun because there are a lot of different things to get done. It's like farming: You aim for an end result, but it's about time management. A farmer is working against nature, and a lot of forces that affect you. It's the same thing here — you're managing your time and trying to put your resources in the best area at the right time. Every year is different, and it changes day to day.
Q Have you developed a respect for mosquitoes as an adversary?
A You know, there are about 50 species of mosquitoes you encounter in the county. They all have different features, different life cycles, different anatomy, different habitats. It's amazing, really, but in terms of killing mosquitoes … I mean, I do it without remorse. I consider myself part of a human colony, and mosquitoes lower our quality of life. We don't work in the middle of the woods — we work where people are, so we aren't going to eradicate mosquitoes just by what we are doing now. And if you follow genetic theory, we're just competing genomes. They're really good at what they do, and we're good too, but with different strategies.