April 15 2016 01:43 PM

What is the dominant species on planet Earth? If you asked 100 people off the street, most of them would probably say that we are. But if you asked an entomologist, you’d hear a different tune. They’d say that we live on the planet of the bugs.

They have a pretty good basis for their claim. Insects outnumber us 200 million to one, and no matter how many we eradicate, they always seem to come right back. We know we’re fighting an uphill battle.

As landscape contractors, we spend a lot of time outdoors, so we know the challenges of the insect kingdom. Most of the time, bugs are just an itchy annoyance, and a distraction at worst. Generally, in all but the most arid climates, you just take the bad with the good, and maybe spray a little citronella on your uniforms on those muggy summer days.

Sometimes, though, that mild annoyance can be a real danger. Mosquitoes are living vectors for some nasty pathogens. With the risks of West Nile Virus, dengue fever, malaria and now the Zika virus on the rise, it’s an apt time to review your defenses against these flying pests.

That review could be more fruitful than you might expect. After all, you aren’t the only one with mosquito-based concerns. The property owners who pay you to keep their landscapes looking nice may have the same fears, or they may simply want to be able to go outside without getting covered with bug bites.

Whatever the cause, there’s a lot of opportunity right now for contractors to add mosquito control to the services they offer. If you decide to add this service, there are a number of options available.

You could buy a franchise (there are two that we know of: Mosquito Joe and Mosquito Squad); you could install a MistAway unit around patios to help control the mosquitoes. We recently heard about a manufacturer out there who will be introducing a piece of riding spray equipment that will apply materials. Another new introduction is landscape lighting with insect repellent built in.

In Brighton, Tennessee, Steve Clark, president of Southern Lawn and Pest, says that buying into the Mosquito Joe franchise has been a great move for his company. “Here in Tennessee, it’s a seasonal business,” he said. “Our season runs from April through October.”

Every third week, one of Clark’s crews visits, bringing backpack blowers/sprayers filled with either an insecticide or an insect repellent, depending on the client’s choice. They do an assessment of the landscape, looking for the places where mosquitoes tend to rest and lay eggs. Likely hotspots are areas that consistently provide shade or stagnant water, like birdbaths, or the underside of a patio.

Once those hotspots have been covered, the technicians then spray around the perimeter of the property, which puts up a barrier to prevent bug intrusion from neighboring properties or the surrounding area. Finally, they spray around the building itself, providing a final layer of defense to shut out the few bugs that may have survived.

According to Clark, this technique has proven to be quite effective. “We generally get 80 to 95 percent control of mosquito populations,” he said. That’s the difference between a successful dinner on the patio, and a barbeque that lasts five minutes before being driven back inside.

Of course, whenever you’re planning to apply pesticide, you need to take licensing into consideration. “There are a lot of restrictions when it comes to pesticide application,” said Clark, “and every state is different.”

Clark does his initial training with PowerPoint presentations and training videos, but he doesn’t stop as soon as his trainees have the theory down. “I also have an inthe-field element to our training program,” he said. “So I go out with the technicians, two at a time, and observe them in action. Then I make corrections to their spray methods, and to the way that they are applying the products.”

The training doesn’t end there, either. All of his applicators have to keep up-to-date through continuing education units (CEUs) in order to maintain their status as legal applicators. Fortunately for Clark, this is made simpler with the help of the training and certification he receives from his franchise.

That help does come with a price. “Generally, a franchise costs about $70,000 to $80,000 up front,” said Angela Paules, director of marketing for Mosquito Joe in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “That’s going to cover things like your initial inventory of products for the service, your vehicle lease, your initial marketing materials and our franchise fee.”

Becoming a franchisee isn’t the only way to control your clients’ mosquito problems, and Pro Products LLC, based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, offers one such alternative.

They sell a mosquito-control chemical which is particularly attractive to those customers who are afraid of pesticides, or who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly.

“It’s not going to kill anything,” said Andrew Saal, vice president of sales and marketing for Pro Products. “It puts out a scent that mosquiteos, ticks, ants and all types of crawling, flying insects don’t like, so they’ll stay away.”

As a rule, insect repellants need to be applied more frequently than insecticides, in order to stay effective.

The smell also tends to be quite strong, as you might expect of blends that include garlic, cedar and castor oil. The odor is usually undetectable after about 20 minutes—except to mosquitoes—but even at very low levels, they can still detect it and will keep away.

Some customers will always prefer repellants to insecticides. Bill Houser, irrigation manager with Fort Wayne, Indiana-based Bruce Ewing Landscapes, started offering Pro Products when a few of his customers began asking him for a solution to their mosquito problems. They had properties with standing water in pools or ponds, and found that the resulting clouds of mosquitoes made their backyards unusable.

Although the compound can be sprayed, Houser chose to distribute it via the irrigation system. He bought and installed an automated dosing system from the company, which uses a water-powered pump to disperse the repellent into the system, like an IV drip tapped into a person’s bloodstream. When the irrigation system runs, it automatically sprays repellent, which ensures that the lawn receives regular treatment.

The dosing mechanism can tap into any one of a number of points on a regular sprinkler-based irrigation system. “It is very versatile, when it comes to hooking up one of the systems,” said Houser. “You can do the whole yard, or just the front yard, or the backyard. You can design it to fit the customer’s needs, whatever they are.”

Every month, Houser checks on the system—which lives in a 12-inch control valve box—to make sure it hasn’t run out of chemicals, and that the injection rate is correct. He finds that on the properties he has installed, about five gallons is enough for an entire season.

Even as I write this, another mosquito-control option is emerging. If you offer landscape lighting as one of your services, Broan-NuTone LLC, based in Hartford, Wisconsin, offers a lighting fixture that can also disperse an odorless repellent.

A heating element in the fixture vaporizes a cartridge of metofluthrin, a mosquito repellent. Each cartridge lasts more than 200 hours, and can create a mosquito-free zone of 110 square feet. If hooked up to a controller, the system can run automatically, and the repellent and lights can be run separately.

MistAway, based out of Houston, Texas, has yet another option for contractors looking to offer this service. They sell an insecticide mister that installs like an irrigation misting system, dispersing the chemical through nozzles spread across the property. It runs for about one minute, twice per day, once at dawn and once after dusk, the times that mosquitoes are most likely to be active.

There are some additional options available, like leak detection and wind sensors. Jim Jackson, Mist- Away company president, says they’re also connecting it to the web. “We rolled out a technology about two years ago called iMistAway,” he said, “so the contractor can see the status of the unit on the Internet. If the insecticide in the unit is empty, or if our unit’s recognized a leak and shuts down, they’ll get a message.”

Jackson has noticed a trend with mosquito-control services that he thinks contractors should be aware of. Whenever there’s a mosquito-based health scare, in the rush to be first to market, some businesses skip licensing, and claim that they’re protecting the public’s health. “It happened a lot with West Nile, and I’m worried it’s going to happen again with Zika,” Jackson said. “The state regulators do not approve of using scare tactics to sell this stuff.”

This is an important point for contractors looking to enter the business, because even well-intentioned marketing campaigns may fall afoul of state regulators. When anxiety about mosquito-borne contagions is already high, the state may not distinguish between making a public health claim and fear-mongering. In that kind of social climate, the safest path is to be conservative in your marketing efforts.

That may be trickier than it sounds, because once you start offering this service, you’ll get excited about it. “I think the service we provide is a huge benefit to the communities we serve,” said Clark. “Even when the media is not talking about it, it’s something that people need to be aware of. We are protecting their families, and protecting their friends.”

Every contractor wants to improve the lives of his customers, but few services can make such a dramatic difference. Landscape maintenance, outdoor living installations, and outdoor lighting all add financial value and utility, but ask yourself this: Do you currently provide another service that might allow a person with a compromised immune system to enjoy the peace and beauty of the great outdoors in safety?

If not, mosquito control might be worth considering.