It is not uncommon to have a mosquito buzz by your face, hands or ankles while working in the garden.
Normally, we make halfhearted attempts at swatting them or just wave them away and continue gardening. Those days are over with the appearance of the Zika virus in California.
Other countries have faced mosquito-borne diseases for thousands of years. Now it’s our turn. And before you dismiss the problem, understand that over 700,000,000 people get sick or die every year from mosquito borne diseases. That works out to one out of every seven people get sick or die because of mosquitos, making them the most dangerous living thing on our planet!
Mosquitoes are vectors of disease. A single mosquito bite can infect you with malaria, Chikungunya, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile virus, and now Zika. Our four-legged friends are not safe either. Mosquitos can carry dog heartworm (found in all 50 states) and encephalitis. Encephalitis takes many forms, depending on the virus being transmitted and the host. Encephalitis can infect horses, birds and people and may lead to seizures, coma and death.
Mosquito borne disease are increasing exponentially in the United States. This is partly due to travel to and from infected areas. Once an infected individual returns home, all it takes is one mosquito bite to start spreading the disease. As gardeners, we spend more time outside than many other people, increasing our risk of exposure. Another reason for the increase is that viruses are becoming pesticide resistant.
So, what’s up with this Zika virus?
Until 2015, Zika was only found in Africa. At the time of this writing, the Zika virus was found in 20 countries, including the U.S. Less than one year later (December 2016), that number had reached 78. The Zika virus causes fever, joint pain, a rash, and your eyes turn red. It can also lead to Guillain-Barre syndrome, which causes muscle weakness and paralysis. That’s if you’re lucky and not pregnant; an estimated 46% of all Zika virus infections of pregnant women has caused severe birth defects or fetal death.
There is no vaccine for the Zika virus and the CDC expects the number of infections to escalate.
Unlike most mosquitos, which tend to feed in the evening, mosquitos that carry the Zika virus are aggressive daytime feeders. They can be found indoors, too! The Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus) and the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti, above) have black-and-white stripes and are half the size of normal mosquitoes.
Gardening in the presence of mosquitos requires some care. Use these tips to help prevent infection by the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases:
It might sound like it’s more trouble than its worth, but it’s not. Simply storing unused flower pots and pot saucers upside-down can prevent a life-threatening disease.
Get out in the garden, but do it safely!
UPDATE (July 22, 2016): The Zika virus has now been found in Culexquinquefasciatus mosquitoes. The Culex mosquito is far more common than species previously found carrying the disease. This means all mosquitoes should be treated as potential carriers (unless you're an entomologist with excellent eyesight).
*Research has shown that repellants made from citronella and lemongrass do not work (Consumer Reports)
** Window screens, introduced in the 1880s, were called "the most humane contribution the 19th century made to the preservation of sanity and good temper.” (Wikipedia)
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!