Sierra Club Youth Corps, summary 2017-

The Sierra Club Youth Corps is a summer program offered by Don’t Spray Me! beginning in 2017.

As part of the Sustainability Committee of Sierra Club’s Southeastern PA Group, Don’t Spray Me! works toward Sierra Club’s goal of cutting back human practices harmful to nature and human health.

In SCYC’s 2017 project, organized by Margaret and Jim Hudgings, a group of high school students (photo below by Bill Rettew, Daily Local News, 7/17/17) experimented on neighborhood sidewalks to show that a non-toxic solution is effective in fighting weeds in brick sidewalks.

This anti-Roundup weed-killing formula consists of:

1 gallon distilled white vinegar
1/2 cup table salt
1/2 teaspoon liquid dish soap

How to do it: Pour a small amount of vinegar into your, then pour the salt into the jug of vinegar and shake it vigorously. Pour the salted vinegar into the sprayer and add the liquid dish soap. Swirl the sprayer to mix in the soap, but not so much as to generate suds. Spray it on the target weeds, ideally in the morning of a very sunny day. When finished, spray plain water for a few seconds to clean the wand.

SCYC’s 2018 project, Adopt A Drain, was organized by geologist Rachel Davis. Thanks to a generous Sierra Club Grassroots Network grant, we were able to hire West Chester University graduate student Kyle Erisman to be part of the field surveys and particularly to produce GIS mapping of storm drains in the Borough.

Participants, under careful guidelines, walked selected streets to locate storm drains, clear above-ground blockage (including environmentally damaging plastic bags), peered through the street grills, and reported to the Borough Department of Public Works whether drains needed attention as being clogged below ground or containing potentially mosquito-breeding stagnant water (below: map by Kyle Erisman showing drains, streams, and other features).

In 2019, we plan to continue this project by organizing citizens to patrol storm drains in their neighborhoods and report drainage problems to the Borough, while reorienting the Sierra Club Youth Corps to another innovative and educational project.

Who says storm drains are a big mosquito problem?

The PA Department of Environmental Protection, that’s who!

We usually call them “storm drains” but others use the term “catch basins” or “inlets.” In any case, that’s where runoff from streets goes through a grill and disappears from our sight. But then were does it go? It should drain by gravity though a pipe system and eventually flow into a stream. That’s a problem for the stream, because street runoff can be polluted, e.g, by car and animal wastes.

But when water is able to remain standing in the storm drain, it provides an ideal habitat for mosquitoes to breed! Then those storm drains need to be “treated” (with a larvicide like Bti) to keep larvae from maturing there into adult mosquitoes. Here’s what PA DEP says (you have to keep refreshing the URL in your browser to find this photo and commentary):

“Why don’t they just spray and kill all the mosquitoes?”

Yes, people may wonder: “Why don’t they just spray and kill all the mosquitoes?”

First, it’s impossible to kill all the mosquitoes. Any spraying, including from a truck as done by the County, kills only the portion of mosquitoes that happen to be flying around at the time and encounter toxic droplets. We have seen figures of up to an 80% kill rate (yes, this is a serious poison) but no really authoritative figure.

But suppose 20+% of adult mosquitoes survive (and any out of the spray zone, sheltered at the time in thick foliage, or in inaccessible areas like inside bulkheads or hollow trees, will not be affected). The females, at least, will be happily flying around the next day biting people and laying eggs as usual.

The hundreds of eggs that each female lays in stagnant water are affected by spray. Those eggs will become larvae, pupae, and adults, all within a week in hot weather like now.

And current larvae and pupae will not be affected by spray either.

And not all mosquitoes are created equal. Specifications require that spraying occur only in the evening, when honeybees are less active. Disaster for bees ensues if spraying occurs at other times.

Our home-grown mosquitoes, the ones that at least give us an auditory warning hum as they circle us looking for bare skin, tend to be active in the evening; however, the recently established “Asian Tiger” mosquitoes, the silent biters, tend to be active during the day and therefore are not much affected by spraying. Killing off some of the “regular” mosquitoes probably just opens the airways to more Asian Tigers.

Furthermore, anti-mosquito spray actually kills mosquito-eaters like dragonflies and toads, to say nothing of insects that we enjoy seeing or that are important to ecological balance like butterflies.

The County Health Department does not spray for the comfort of people who wish to be outside without the recommended bug repellents, long sleeves, and long pants. People outside need to weigh those nuisances against the nuisance of being bitten. The Health Department is not the Department of Outdoor Living.

Finally, proper public policy is to spray only, in the words of the Chesco Health Department, “after exhausting all other available mosquito control strategies.”

The prime non-toxic mosquito control strategy is larviciding suspect standing water. Individuals can larvicide on their own property but not on public property. We are glad to say that the Borough of West Chester is taking steps for two employees to receive the relatively simple licensing to do that, and we hope other municipalities will do the same.

Currently, the County does the larviciding but obviously needs to be informed where the problem areas are in such a large county. In West Chester, our Adopt A Drain program is clearing drain grills of plastics and other detritus and informing the Borough of drains that need cleaning below grill level or larvicing where they are holding standing water.

Example, as of Aug. 30, 2018: the storm drain at the NE corner of E. Nields and S. Matlack streets. If you check it out, you’ll see a water reflection at the bottom. After the dry last week in August, this drain could already have released swarms of adult mosquitoes to the neighborhood. In dry weather, mosquitoes could also be breeding in stagnant areas of Goose Creek and Plum Run, including water backing up in drainage pipes entering the stream. (Water samples are needed to check it out.)

If residents anywhere are aware of storm drains with standing water, they should inform their municipality. And of course, we should all patrol our own property, even for something as small as a bowl holding water under a potted plant, and put in a helpful word to neighbors who may not be addressing the issue. For some egregious “Case studies in what to avoid,” see here.

The importance of larviciding … including out of sight

In the 4-part mosquito life cycle*, the most vulnerable stage is the larva. Eggs are designed to survive, pupae don’t need to eat and their chief enemy would be rough water preventing them from breathing, and adults are elusive fliers and many survive even the most determined application of toxic chemicals.

But larvae depend on feeding on organic matter in unclean standing water. If they get too hot or cold, don’t find enough food, or can’t breathe regularly at the surface of calm water, they will develop into adults either slowly or not at all. Continue reading