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Things that go ZZZ in the night

"The job is fairly simple – mainly stumbling down steep embankments and crashing through bushes to pockets of standing water to collect mosquito larvae..."
Andrew Mitchell joins mosquito-tracker Billy Regan on the hunt for West Nile.

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Billy Regan dips a coffee cup-sized mosquito collector into a pool of brackish water that has collected in a roadside drainage ditch and draws out a wriggling mass of brown gunk. Small, stick-like creatures, just a few millimetres in length, dart back and forth in the muck.

"There’s probably well over a hundred mosquito larvae in there," he says, carefully transferring the mass into a small plastic container that will be sent to the lab for testing.

"We always check this spot because it has the type of Class 3-plus mosquitoes that are most likely to spread the West Nile virus."

The ditch in question is on the side of Alta Lake Road outside of the Tamarisk parking lot. Just up the road is a staff accommodation building housing hundreds of Whistler-Blackcomb employees.

We approached the ditch from the parking lot side with the sun in our faces, as the mosquito larvae often retreat to the bottom of the pond when they detect shadows and movement.

Regan says this particular ditch and culvert system was cleared recently, but it has become blocked again. Water doesn’t drain well and a film develops over the water that slows evaporation. It’s exactly the kind of breeding environment that certain types of mosquitoes prefer. As well, because it’s a man-made body of water there are no natural predators to feed on the larvae and keep the mosquito population down.

Regan estimates that there are hundreds of man-made mosquito-breeding areas in the Whistler area, most of which are a byproduct of development. These areas need to be identified and mitigated, he said, in case the West Nile virus is discovered.

This is the third year that Whistler’s mosquitoes have been captured and tested for West Nile virus. So far the virus has not been discovered, but Regan and others believe that it’s only a matter of time.

"The experts have looked at it, and they say there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be here," he said.

"It was supposed to be here in 2004, then in 2005, then 2006, but there’s no doubt it will eventually get here. There’s no characteristic that would prevent (West Nile) from getting to Whistler. It’s anyone’s guess why it isn’t here already."

West Nile has already been confirmed in Alberta, and south of the border in Oregon and Idaho. Washington state and B.C., along with Alaska and the Canadian territories, are among the last jurisdictions in North America not to find proof of the virus, which typically travels through migratory birds.

It is believed that the first cases of West Nile in B.C. will be found in the Interior, carried across the border by migratory birds.

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