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Drones Are the Latest Weapon in the Battle to Control Mosquitos

Santa Clara County, Calif., is turning to drones to spray larvicide in non-residential areas. Recent wet weather has created the ideal conditions for a booming year for mosquitos and vector-borne diseases.

Joseph Daviss, an agricultural drone pilot with Leading Edge Areal Technologies, prepares to fly a drone to deploy larvicide for Santa Clara County at Palo Alto Baylands in Palo Alto, Calif., on Tuesday, May 2, 2023. Daviss lives in Alabama and travels during the summer to fly drones that are designed to deploy spray. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
Shae Hammond/TNS
(TNS) — After experiencing a particularly wet winter, Santa Clara County is rolling out drones to spray larvicide in non-residential areas to prevent what could be a booming year for mosquitos and vector-borne diseases like West Nile Virus.

This is the first year the county’s Vector Control District will use drones to deploy larvicide — an insecticide that targets mosquito larvae. The drones will only be used in uninhabited and remote areas that can’t be accessed on foot, like some of the county’s marshlands at the Baylands Nature Preserve in Palo Alto.

The district previously used helicopters to reach those areas, but that posed several downsides.

“Those areas are very sensitive and drones are going to have less of an impact on the environment,” Nayer Zahir, the vector control district manager, said.

She said the drones will be flown by a licensed individual at about 200 feet above the ground.

The drones will allow the larvicide to be applied more precisely and are more sustainable since they’re electric compared to a gas-powered helicopter, Edgar Nolasco, the director of the county’s Consumer and Environmental Protection Agency, said.

“As an agency, we are always looking for new ways to improve our processes,” Nolasco said of the technology, which is being used by other vector control organizations across the country.

Utilizing the drones this year will cost $150,000, according to county documents.

The Vector Control District expects mosquitos to be a larger problem this year since rainy weather has created stagnant water across the county. Mosquitos tend to breed by laying their eggs in still water, and some mosquitos in the Bay Area can fly up to 25 miles once they are adults.

That can cause problems if the mosquitoes carry certain diseases, such as West Nile Virus — a primary concern. It’s the most common and most severe disease stemming from mosquitos and has caused 7,597 infections in humans and 345 deaths in the state since 2003, according to the California Department of Public Health.

So far in 2023, the department has reported one dead bird and two mosquito samples positive for West Nile Virus in California. There have been no human cases thus far.

The district hopes that by utilizing drones more mosquito larvae will be eliminated, helping the agency avoid conducting mosquito fogging down the line.

Residents can help reduce the mosquito population this summer by inspecting any standing water on their property, cleaning birdbaths once a week to remove mosquito eggs and putting screens on any rain barrels or irrigation drains to prevent mosquito access.

“This is a community effort that all of us have to do our part to reduce the population,” Nolasco said.

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