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It's creepy-crawly time as Pest Control gears up for summer

Story and photo by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Doug Lee, a certified pest control operator, fogs brush at Lewis Lake, where mosquitoes are a common problem. The oil-based pesticide dispensed by the fogger is one of several weapons base Pest Control has in its arsenal.

With fences, concrete barriers and metal reinforced bollards, radar, video surveillance and crack 6th Security Forces Squadron patrolling day and night, one might feel secure at MacDill, but there are many intruders on base, coming and going as they please.

They creep; they crawl and they slither; they bite and sting. Bugs, snakes, rodents and other scary things have breached the perimeter but they meet their match when they come up against MacDill's crack Pest Control team.

With summer upon us, all the creepy-crawlys are coming out of hiding and that means encounters with humans go up.

Mosquitoes bite, wasps sting, ants make mine fields on the lawn and hungry rodents, and the reptiles hungry for rodents, are on the move, and it is the job of Bill Murphy, head of base Pest Control, and his team of four, to offer relief and security.

The crew is contracted to handle all varieties of pest control that are a nuisance or threat to people. That does not include threats to plants and when insects threaten your begonias, it is the grounds crews that handle the job, said Mr. Murphy, who has been battling bugs at MacDill since 1995.

With so much natural habitat and wetlands, MacDill is an ideal place for all sorts of pests, and in the warmer months, things are abuzz - literally.

Mosquitoes are the biggest summer pest by far and while they are kept under control on base, it is a war that can't be won entirely, said Mr. Murphy. Like all methods of pest control, his department uses an "integrated" approach to battling mosquitoes, using as little pesticide as possible and ensuring residents and workers on base are taking steps to alleviate their problems on their own.

Mosquito breeding areas are attacked, denying them the standing, stagnant water needed to breed. Changing bird bath water every three days and putting a little cooking oil or some dish soap in ornamental ponds and other containers that don't support other life, such as fish, is one measure that all residents and base workers can take.

Mosquito programs on base include killing larvae, portable foggers and spraying from a fogging truck. Under the DoD contract, the crew isn't allowed to fog mosquitoes unless someone complains or members of the crew visually see a mosquito problem in an area.

There are exceptions (a bug or pest emergency) but generally everyone on base with a pest problem is required to use traps, sprays or other remedies obtained at the Self Help Center for 30 days before the pros are allowed to step in.

"Most people can deal with the problem on their own and they don't need us," said Mr. Murphy. "There are times, though, when there is nothing they can do and that's where we come in."

While common large cockroaches are easily dealt with by baits or traps, insects like German Cockroaches are a pest best dealt with by industrial-strength measures, he said.

"They are nasty and tough," said Mr. Murphy. "There isn't anything the average person can do about them."

Ants are another tough problem at MacDill. This time of year fire ants are on the war path and flying ants often invade dwellings, along with carpenter ants, which don't eat wood but make their homes inside it.

Fire ant treatments available to the public are very effective. Carpenter ants are tough, said Mr. Murphy. They are hard to eliminate unless you can find their nesting areas, often inside walls.

Spiders are misunderstood creatures. They eat insects, so the best way to ensure they don't hang around is to cut off their food supply by getting rid of the bugs. Simply sweeping away webs wherever they appear also discourages them. Spiders to worry about include black and brown widows. Recluse spiders are a lot rarer than most think and Mr. Murphy said he's never seen one on base. All spiders contain some type of venom but not all are capable of biting a human.

Other critters that make their home on base include snakes. MacDill has lots of them, including rattlesnakes. Other poisonous snakes on base are pygmy rattlesnakes, coral snakes and water moccasins, the last two of which would be very rare at MacDill. Rat snakes of the red and yellow variety, black racers and king snakes are rodent eating machines and do a good job keeping the rats in check.

"Snakes get a bad reputation when they don't deserve it," said Mr. Murphy. "They are beneficial and a vital part of the ecosystem."

He notes that if you give them their space they will leave you alone.

"Snakes don't attack or target people." He said.

Fruit rats are the most common rodents on base, though there are mice and some other rat species. Fruit rats feed on fruit and will climb trees but will also come into homes and eat about any grain or other food, even chocolate. While the fruit rats on base can grow to eight or 10 inches, they can squeeze through a half-inch hole, so the best measure against home invasions in plugging any holes that size or larger.

The pest control crew also has the task of managing raccoons, foxes and other creatures that become a problem. They typically are animals that encroach on human territory because they have lost their fear. He encourages those on base to refrain from feeding wild animals, no matter how cute they appear.

The usual tactic is to trap them in cages and relocate them to more remote parts of the base.

Pests are a problem anyone in Florida will have to deal with sooner or later and no one is immune.

When asked if the pest control office has any bugs around, Mr. Murphy chuckles:

"Sure, we have some now and then, but we don't mind as much because we're used to them."

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