Marcia Wolfe with her dogs
Marcia Wolfe

You know, I wasn’t born and raised in Bakersfield, but I have lived here since 1985; so, it’s been a while I’ve been living here.  I have been in my current home for about 21 years.  That’s long enough to begin to recognize certain patterns of things, e.g. weather, at least in general, traffic going to work is always easier in the summer because of fewer vehicles on the road during office commute times because school is out, mourning doves cooing in the morning, and the scrub jay squawking in the afternoon. There also have been a few longer-term patterns, such as less fog now over that period of time, cleaner air quality compared to when I arrived here, oh, and of course, more people?!?! Way more people, like there are almost 3 times more people now than in 1985.

Lantana, one plant which helps dissuade mosquitoes from hanging out close by.

Other patterns changed too.  Some of these things I notice is because I am an ecologist and biologist, so I spend a lot of my time outdoors.  Further, when it’s hot, I also spend a lot of time on the patio in the shade, eating or reading, talking on the phone, and sometimes working from my laptop on the patio table.  It’s cool and relaxing, especially in the mornings and evenings.  But sometimes it’s comfortable even during the day, though not when its 100 degrees and over.  So,over time, one notices changes.  For example, nothing much ever bothered me out on the patio.  One month a screech owl roosted on the support chain to the patio light at night.  That was really neat.  (Though it did leave pellets to clean up; I didn’t mind.) But suddenly one year, we got a lot of flies.  Now all the time I had been there, flies had never been an issue, regardless of whether or not I was eating and food was present, ever.  Suddenly there wereflies all around.  The flies are still here now, albeit not seemingly as bad as before.  Doing a little research, we discovered that with the increases in property taxes around Riverside, the large dairies on the edge of town could no longer afford to persist there?!?  So, a number of them moved to Kern County.  So, now we have more flies than we used to.  Fortunately, we have a lot of insect eating birds too, so they help to balance those insect populations.

Lemongrass

This year we are experiencing another change—clouds of mosquitoes!!!  Being the outdoors girl, I was used to sitting outside a lot on the patio and working in the yard.  Today I can’t even sit outside on the patio, or the chairs under the trees to talk on the phone, read, or anything without being attacked by a whole flock.  Virtual clouds of mosquitoes swarm around me!  Now, my dad used to attract mosquitoes.  He would be the only one bitten at the lake on a family outing, and it didn’t matter where it was—in Washington, Wisconsin, no matter.  My dad always got bit the most.  No one else would be bothered.  He was the ultimate mosquito attractor, but not me.  My brother and I counted our bites one time.  He and I had 2-3 and Dad had 23.  It was amazing.

Well this summer, you would never know it!  I have bites around my ankles, my elbows, my arms.  I gave up on shorts and wear long pants or jeans.  That is why the bites are on my ankles. That height is about as far as they get up my pantlegs. There are so many; it’s crazy.  I peeked over the fence to see if my neighbors had green pools, fountains or spas, expecting to see something swarming with mosquito larvae and mosquitoes!!!???  But none are there, at least not nearby or that I could see.

I also noticed the black phoebes coming into the back yard and sitting on the tomato plant support cage, where my red skimmers sit and forage.  They are the ultimate insect catcher, and he is usually in the neighbors’ front yards, not my back yard. However, apparently they love to hunt insects in the air, and swoop out in the open spaces beneath my pine trees when there are a lot of mosquitoes.

These mosquitoes seem almost invisible.  I am not an entomologist, but in Washington State where I grew up, the mosquitoes were dark, black and large.  The mosquitoes here appear light grey with white bands on their legs.  Apparently, according to Kern Mosquito and Vector Control, this species started showing up here about five years ago and are spreading throughout the city.

Mosquitoes can carry diseases, such as the Zika virus, West Nile virus, Chikungunya virus, dengue and malaria.  There was a recent news blurb that on the east coast this year there have been a number of cases of eastern equine encephalitis spread by mosquitoes.You don’t want to get any of these diseases.  You know, it seems the world is getting smaller, and smaller.  Where we all travel, we take our diseases.

So what can we do so we can still enjoy our patios and the outdoors?  Long sleeves and pants, mosquito repellent.  Burning a citronella candle seems to greatly reduce their numbers, at least at table height.  I think they move to the ankles then.  But I read a study that said the candles may reduce the number of bites by about 50%.  There is also a type of citronella diffuser which works even better, but I have yet to see it in the store. 

On the other hand, citrus smelling vegetation apparently also works well.  A study showed that citronella type plants can ward off a higher percentage of mosquitoes than candles.  Citronella grass (Cymbopogon nardus), more commonly called lemongrass, is very effective at repelling mosquitoes with its woody, citrus smell.  It is closely related to the species of lemongrass used in Asian cooking.  It is a pretty grass and would “fit” well into local landscaping similar to other perennial grasses now being used in flower beds.  I can envision a border of lemongrass around the edge of my patio.  It would look great, and reportedly would smell lemony.  In addition, there is citronella, a flowering herb which also repels mosquitoes.  Lantana, a colorful flowering herb, also repels mosquitoes.  So we all need to get planting.

Tuesday, on the front page of the Californian, was an article about the increase in size of mosquito populations in Bakersfield?!!!  Unbelievable-—I am right!  There are more mosquitoes!  I knew it, but they stole my thunder!!I’ve been working on this for several weeks!  Generally there are about 50 species of mosquitoes in California.  Differing geographical regions are often dominated by populations of a particular species.  Apparently this is a different species than normally used to occur here, which started to show up about 2014.  I had also been wondering if the increase in the mosquito population was related to the water that is now in the Kern River. The water increase is wonderful for so many reasons, as pointed out in my July article, Bakersfield’s Special Treasure: The Kern River.  We haven’t had much water present in the past ten years,but the reasons for the increase in this particular species of mosquito are unknown.  Meanwhile, there are ways to manage weeds, pests and insects with vegetation; we simply have to figure it out and do it.  So get out there and start planting those mosquito repelling plants!