BIDDEFORD, Maine — University of New England researchers are partnering with school carpenters and landscapers in an ambitious effort to reclaim their Biddeford campus from some of nature’s most reviled pests: Mosquitoes.
In addition to driving the insects away from high-traffic locations with strategically chosen and located birds, bats and plants, students and faculty advisers plan to trap mosquitoes and find out which species are bugging the local humans.
Noah Perlut, assistant professor of environmental studies at the university, said that while most people see all mosquitoes the same — as tiny, buzzing, blood-sucking irritants — there are actually 40 different species of mosquitoes in Maine.
Perlut said the UNE research team is realistic about its goals.
“We’re not trying to get rid of all the mosquitoes,” he said. “That’s not possible. I think there are a lot of places in humanity where they already would have done that if it was possible.”
The project began a year ago, when state officials found mosquitoes carrying the deadly Eastern equine encephalitis in York County. The disease — commonly referred to as EEE — was detected again in insects in Maine’s southernmost county this week.
“We were getting athletes back [on campus for preseason activities] and there was more and more concern about their safety,” Ronnie Souza, UNE director of environmental health and safety, said of the situation on campus a year ago.
Souza said the school administration did not want to spray pesticides campuswide and initially handed out individual bug spray containers to the returning student athletes. Even that didn’t seem like a sustainable solution long-term, Perlut said.
“One of the reasons this is such a unique project is that the administration engaged the faculty and students in trying to solve the problem,” he said.
Seeking a first semester project for one of their classes, students Caitlin Spaeth, Brendan Emanuel and Sam Fields took the reins, ultimately delivering to faculty and facilities managers a 60-page document laying out a strategy for driving mosquitoes away from places where students most often walk outside.
“We ended up with a three-pronged approach: Birds, bats and plants,” said Fields.
Working with university staff carpenters and landscapers, the students installed 22 bat boxes and 24 birdhouses — built to the specifications of tree swallows and bluebirds, which, like bats, like to eat mosquitoes — around the Biddeford campus.
Then the team turned its attention to what members discovered to be proven mosquito-repelling plants such as mints, citronella, sweet fern and monarda flowers, among others.
“What we’ve tried to do is target places where there’s a lot of student traffic, like the dormitories and meeting places,” said Phil Taschereau, UNE’s landscaping head and a certified master gardener. “Apparently, the students have been finding that it’s made a difference.”
Fields got the honor of being a test case. During the first of what will be a string of experiments recently, she found herself covered by more than 50 mosquitoes while standing 50 feet from one of the plant arrangements. When she moved to within 10 feet of the plants, the number of mosquitoes dropped to fewer than 30, and when she stood next to the vaguely orange- and mint-smelling leaves, her mosquito problem all but disappeared.
“If students just rub these plants as they’re coming or going from these buildings, it releases the oils into the air and gets it onto their skin,” Taschereau said of the natural repellent.
The next phase of the project, started this month, involves setting cannisterlike mosquito traps around the campus. When classes begin in the coming weeks, Emanuel said, he and Fields will view the captured pests under microscopes to determine which species of mosquitoes are nearby.
Spaeth graduated last spring.
Of the 40 species in Maine, only 12 can carry EEE or the similarly dangerous West Nile virus, Perlut said.
“What does it mean when the state says, ‘We found a mosquito with this disease’? Is that [a species that represents] 1 percent of the population? Or 90 percent?” posed Souza. “That’s what we’ll be trying to find out.”