Pest abatement expert aims to protect public from mosquitoes

Farmers and residents in Elmore County know him as Mosquito Jim. It’s because Jim Torbert has spent the last three years of his career with the county’s pest abatement department protecting the people from diseases spread by mosquitoes.

Torbert’s main battle involves the mosquito-borne West Nile Virus, which reached Idaho in 2004. By 2006, there were 996 confirmed cased of the virus reported to the state health department.

The state fought back with the creation of mosquito abatement districts across Idaho to deal with pests deemed a public health concern. Shortly after, Elmore County’s Pest Abatement District was created, and Torbert was hired to lead the fight against species-crossing illness.

“It’s all about the health and welfare of the people of Elmore County,” said Torbert, who admits that he hasn’t always had the easiest time accomplishing the task.

He’s had instances where he pulled his truck up to someone’s property and was met with someone holding a shotgun on their porch. He also had a lawsuit filed against him after he fogged an area to rid it of mosquitoes.

Generally, he remains respectful of other’s property and boundaries. State statutes, however, give him the authority to go onto federal, state, county, city or private property to capture and test mosquitoes for West Nile Virus. It also allows him to rid that area of these pests if the virus is detected, regardless of where they’re found.

“Mosquitoes are out there, and they suck,” Torbert says laughing at his own play on words.

But it’s true, he said. These pests don’t care whose property they invade.

“I love the meaning of the job,” said Torbert, who sees it as helping people and making a difference, not policing.

When it comes to West Nile Virus, Torbert speaks from experience. Both Torbert and his office manager, Beverly Engelhardt, have contracted the virus, which is passed between infected birds to mosquitoes and then to horses and humans.

In 70 to 80 percent of cases where people become infected, they don’t develop symptoms. However, Torbert and Engelhardt weren’t so lucky. They were part of the one in five who develop symptoms like fever, headaches, body aches, joint pains, vomiting, diarrhea or rashes.

Symptoms usually appear between five to 15 days after infection. Most people recover completely, but fatigue and weakness can last for weeks to months.

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The reason health departments are concerned of an outbreak of this illness is the effects it can have on the less than one percent of people infected. Those people can develop severe neurological illnesses such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the tissue surrounding the brain).

Those severe symptoms can include headache, high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, tremors, seizures, paralysis and coma. In extreme cases, it’s been known to kill people.

The elderly and those with medical conditions that have a weakened immune system are more at risk. Of the one percent who contract the neurological infections associated with West Nile Virus, about 10 percent of them will likely die.

Those who do recover may have permanent neurological effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How does Torbert deal with protecting the entire county? He starts with educating the public on how to protect themselves.

It starts with flyers that are mailed out to every address in the county that contain facts, myths, protection and how to contact his office to report mosquito-ridden areas. He’s also hung posters around town teaching residents how to “Fight The Bite.” Students in the county were included in this education outreach during a “mosquito 101” poster contest where fourth grade students were able to color and name a new type of mosquito.

These efforts warn people to look for standing water and eliminate areas where that water can breed mosquitoes. Females of the species are the only one that bite and can live from three to 100 days. During that time, those female insects can lay between 1,000 to 3,000 eggs.

To avoid creating a mosquito habitat, Torbert asks people to drain neglected swimming pools, bird baths, water features, pet dishes, planters, clogged drain gutters and fix leaky hoses. They should check for tree holes, landscape depressions, storm drains, boat covers, old tires, ponds, drain fields and wetlands to eliminate or treat these places for insects.

In Idaho there are 52 species of mosquito but only two of them are vector species for West Nile Virus — the Western Equine Encephalitis Mosquito (Culex Tarsalis) and the Northern House Mosquito (Culex Pipiens). Both of these species are hunted by Torbert.

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Spraying is not the first answer, he said. There is extensive study of any area before action is taken, and even then, he uses the most natural means available to make the smallest impact on the environment.

Trapping is the first step in determining the species that have made an area their home. As of 2016, there are 36 sites in Elmore County where traps are set with more are being added each year.

Torbert and his assistant travel out once a week and check traps that sit out over a 12-hour period from sunset to sunrise. The captured mosquitoes are then taken back to the office to be counted, catalogued by species and checked for the virus if either of the two vector species are found.

To help in this process, the pest abatement office purchased $4,500 worth of equipment to test mosquitoes in the office versus sending them out to a lab. This gives Torbert the ability to shorten the amount of time for results from four days down to just 90 minutes. This allows for a quicker response to infected areas.

Because mosquitoes also pollinate plants, the pest abatement department is very careful about when, where and how often they spray, Torbert said. For instance, spraying and fogging only happens when the mosquitoes cross the line from being a nuisance to becoming a health hazard.

Currently, the chemical used is a bacterial spray that goes after mosquito larva versus older versions that affected all types of pollinator insects. This leaves other insects in the area safe and leaves food for the insects. Torbert even makes an effort to keep from eliminating other types of insect larva.

Dragonflies, for example, lay their eggs near mosquito eggs, so when their larva hatch, they can eat the mosquito eggs. If dragonflies are in the area where mosquitoes are seen, that is a good sign that the problem is under control, Torbert said.

Mosquitoes are also a source of food for some birds and many bats. Torbert is in the process of erecting bat boxes in the county to encourage these groups to live in areas of large mosquito populations. The brown bat can eat between 600 and 1,000 mosquitoes, while a nursing mother can eat as many as 4,500 in an evening.

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“Anyone who notices bats around their property or wants a nursery of brown bats, I would supply the materials out of the budget for bat boxes,” Torbert said.

The environment is a concern for Torbert, who works to find natural solutions such as the brown bats and public awareness on the issue. One of the biggest impacts he has had is the types of chemical he uses to kill mosquitoes.

Although the chemical growth regulators are cheaper, he uses a bacterial spray that is safe to use on crops. It is released in a fog, which burns off when touched by sunlight, meaning it doesn’t leave residue behind. For Elmore County, the pest abatement district is of the utmost importance considering there are 52 different species of mosquito found in Idaho, according to Torbert. That’s about a third of the different species of mosquitoes in the United States, which total 176.

Worldwide, that number of species climbs to approximately 3,000. With the speed of travel and the connectedness of the world today, it’s not difficult for an insect to find its way into a car or onto a plane and start a new population on foreign soil.

However, many of them are unable to survive the winters in Idaho and the northern United States, which limits the numbers of species. The best way to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes is still to use DEET, said Torbert. The chemical found in most bug repellent sprays is the only one that has been proven to ward off the insects.