She’d rather fight mosquitoes in the swamp than work in a desk job

    Cindy Boehm, wearing hip waders, enters a swamp at the north end of Osoyoos Lake to spray mosquito larvae. She's one of two mosquito control employees of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen's mosquito control program. The spray is not toxic to other wildlife or humans. (Richard McGuire photo)

    By Richard McGuire

    Cindy Boehm spends her days slogging through mosquito-infested swamps, but most of the time she enjoys her work.

    She’d rather do that by far than work in a desk job.

    Boehm is one of two seasonal employees of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen’s (RDOS) Mosquito Control Program.

    She shares the work with Connor Linning, who helps her load insecticide into her truck each morning as the two start work. Then she works her way up the Okanagan Valley as he covers the Similkameen.

    The two spray a granular bacterial larvicide into swampy water, which kills mosquitoes and biting black flies at their larval stage. It’s embedded on bits of crushed corn.

    The product, called bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti), is a naturally occurring soil bacterium that doesn’t harm other insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds or mammals.

    This year is especially busy with recent flooding creating breeding grounds for mosquitoes in places where they don’t usually exist.

    Each morning, Boehm and Linning start with a list of areas to spray that are mosquito-breeding hotspots.

    And this year the list of such spots has been getting longer as a result of the flooding.

    “We have a lot of sites,” said Boehm. “When we started this year we had almost 350. I believe now with what’s been going on with the lake, we’re over 400.”

    Osoyoos Lake flooded, but it also pushed up groundwater to the north of the lake, sometimes suddenly flooding hayfields. As the lake recedes, it leaves pockets of water everywhere, which are ideal for mosquitoes to lay their eggs.

    Boehm parks near a swamp north of Willow Beach at the north end of Osoyoos Lake. As she puts on her hip waders and lifts her spray equipment onto her back, an older couple in a truck stop to thank her for the work she does to rid them of mosquito pests.

    “Keep up the good work,” they tell her gratefully.

    Soon she’s wading in the shallow swamp, careful not to lose her balance, which could be dangerous when she works alone.

    Mosquitoes lay their eggs in shallow water, she said. They don’t like water that gets deep close to the edge.

    Being eaten alive by mosquitoes is not the kind of work that would appeal to many people, but Boehm puts on bug spray before wading into the mosquito zone.

    Still, she’s been doing this work for three years and Linning has been at it for five.

    “I’m a ski coach, so I work all winter,” she said. “This is a perfect summer job… I like to be outside. I’m not really fond of being in an office, so it’s a good job.”

    She doesn’t have a background in entomology, the study of insects, but she said she’s done a lot of reading.

    There are about 40 species of mosquitoes in the South Okanagan, but some of them just bite birds and reptiles and some don’t bite.

    Even of the ones that do bite, it’s just the females that seek out blood for their eggs. The males are content with nectar.

    One of the most bloodthirsty as far as humans are concerned is the aedes vexans, which lays its eggs in mud of flooded areas. These, she said, can fly great distances and their eggs can survive for many years, becoming viable when they get wet again.

    Another genus of mosquitoes is the culex, which normally come a little later in the summer and lay their eggs in shallow water, Boehm said.

    She encourages people to play a role in controlling this mosquito by getting rid of standing water that can be used by the culex mosquitoes to lay their eggs.

    “Clean up your yard, put in proper ditching, clean out your eaves trough, just get rid of places where water tends to pool,” she said. “If you’ve got a depression, fill it in – for your own sanity and for your neighbours. You can’t just rely on a mosquito control program to kill everything. We can’t even come close.”

    Bird baths, dog dishes, all kinds of containers of water can become home to mosquito larvae.

    Unlike the aedes vexans, the culex mosquitoes don’t fly far so they’re easier to control.

    “The problem this year is there’s water everywhere,” said Boehm.

    Recently the RDOS brought in a helicopter to assist with the spraying because there are some areas that are hard for Boehm and Linning to reach on foot.

    There are also areas that are off limits to the Mosquito Control Program such as properties near Road 22 that are owned by Ducks Unlimited, Nature Trust of B.C. and other conservancy land.

    “We’re not allowed to treat them,” said Boehm, who acknowledges that mosquitoes do breed on those wetlands and do affect nearby human habitation.

    The RDOS says that this year’s flooding will likely result in increased nuisance mosquito issues in 2018 as eggs laid this year become viable in the future.

    “That’s a good possibility,” says Boehm. “But who wants to be the bearer of bad news.”

    Cindy Boehm, slogs around in mosquito-infested swamps in her work with the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen’s mosquito control program. She enjoys her work because it gets her outdoors and gives her employment when she’s not working as a ski instructor. (Richard McGuire photo)