Take a Swat at Mosquito Control

By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano

Controlling these summer pests can pay off big-time for contractors and might even save someone's life.

I recall being at a friend’s Master’s-degree-awarding party at her mother’s home one June afternoon. It was held outdoors, by the pool. Even though it was a hot day, no one was in it, because it was ... well ... let’s just say, not in the best condition. Okay — it was green.

As evening approached, my bare arms started itching. Obviously, that green pool had become a breeding pond for mosquito larvae. After receiving a dozen or so bites, I decided it was time to go home.

Mosquito bites used to be a minor spring and summer annoyance, causing itchy welts on people like me who are susceptible. Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who isn’t allergic to their saliva, no one likes clouds of ’skeeters buzzing around their faces. That’s a sure way to ruin a nice summer evening.

But now mosquitoes are much more than mere irritations, they’ve become health hazards, a vector for serious diseases such as West Nile, Zika, EEE (Eastern equine encephalitis) and even the tropical scourge malaria. Along with Lyme-disease-spreading ticks, they’re to be avoided, repelled or annihilated at all costs.

Why are we telling you this? Because there’s money to be made in keeping people’s yards free of these bedeviling virus-injectors. Many landscape contractors, realizing this, have added mosquito and tick control to their menu of services.

“There’s just a huge need for this here in Georgia,” says Elijah Thomas, owner and partner at Atlanta Landscape and Fertilization in Dawsonville.

“We have hot, humid summers, and our winters are typically wet. And we also have plenty of lakes and ponds and places with standing water where they breed.”

Thomas got into mosquito work after several of his customers requested that he come to their homes and spray. “We saw the need for it about five years ago, got certified as pesticide applicators and decided to offer it as a secondary product, an adjunct to our primary service.”

He started by soliciting interest from his already-established customers. “After a while, it proved to be in such demand that we saw a market for it outside of our current client base. Now we offer it by itself as a standalone item, not bundled with any other lawn care services.”

Has it been profitable? “Very,” says Thomas. “We continue to see exponential growth every year; We’re looking to have it become 20 to 25 percent of our overall revenue stream here in the next couple years.”

Mark Kelbacher, owner of Stay- Green Lawn Services in Chicopee, Massachusetts, has also found mosquito control to be “a great revenue stream for us. There’s a need for it from a homeowners’ perspective with the West Nile virus out there and the tick population growing at a rapid pace.”

Climate change has played a role in keeping the mosquito and tick populations thriving. “We’re not getting the harsh winters like we did,” says Kelbacher. “We used to get some kill over the winter; that helped keep down the numbers.”

Protecting pollinators We’re talking pesticides here, and we must be concerned about their effect on our beleaguered pollinators, the honeybees, Monarch butterflies, and other beneficial bugs. This presents a conundrum for ecologically conscious property owners and contractors. On the one hand, home and business owners feel compelled to do something about outdoor experiences that would be ruined by flocks of disease-bearing mosquitoes and ticks. On the other hand, no one wants to contribute to a possible extinction event.

“Obviously, the bees are important; they’re everything, life itself,” says Bill Plummer, director of operations at Mainely Grass, York, Maine. The company offers a chemical-free approach that uses cedar oil or rosemary oil instead of bifenthrin.

Bifenthrin is one of the most commonly used pesticides, a synthetic pyrethroid with a neurotoxic effect. It will kill bees and other pollinators if they have direct contact with the chemical.

Because of that, Plummer and the other contractors all say that they train their applicators where — and where not — to spray to protect the beneficials in the yard. Blooming or about-to-bloom plants are to be avoided. “If there are flowers around, we generally stay away from that entire area,” says Plummer.

“Mosquitoes love shade, so we’re always looking at cool areas they like to rest in, such as the undersides of leaves,” says Steve Clark, owner of Mosquito Joe of East Memphis, Tennessee. “We’re training our guys to look for sources of standing water (not fish ponds) where they can lay their eggs, and then we treat the water sources as well to prevent those eggs from hatching.”

What about client conversion?

This ancillary service can net you customers for your core business as well. Mainely Grass is mainly a lawn care operation, but a percentage of its customers subscribe to both the lawn care and tick-and-mosquito control programs.

Atlanta Landscape and Fertilization does mowing and maintenance, irrigation, weed control and fertilization, landscape design and installation. “Virtually anything needed outdoors, we’re pretty much doing it,” says Thomas, including designing landscapes and building patios and rock paths. He’s had many mosquito-control-only customers convert to regular landscape clients and vice versa.

“We’ve found that both products create synergy off each other. We use internal email marketing leads, so that once someone becomes a client, we offer him our full range of products.”

The franchise route

A fast way to get into mosquito and tick control is to get on board with a franchise. There are several out there: Mosquito Squad, Mosquito Shield, Mosquito Buzz and others. Clark, who started out with a lawn care business called Southern Lawn and Pest in Memphis, got involved with Virginia Beach, Virginia-based franchisor Mosquito Joe after attending an outdoor concert in 2013 with his family.

“In our area the mosquito pressure is just unbelievable. We’re right by the Mississippi River and two others, the Wolf and the Hatchy. In the summertime, you literally can’t go outside and enjoy the night with your friends and family — whatever you’re trying to do, you just can’t do it.”

Nonetheless, Clark did attend that concert. “Somebody sprayed — and because they had, we were able to sit outside all night without getting bit. I remember telling my wife that ‘if somebody markets this properly, it could be a great business.’” Later, Clark’s dad showed him a magazine article about someone who was having success with a Mosquito Joe franchise. After checking into it, he signed up. “We started in business January 14, 2014 and started spraying [that] April.”

Clark says the franchise folks made the startup learning curve a lot easier. “The training part is huge. They give you a manual, plus have all these training videos. They even provide the content for the help wanted ads you need to place to get your technicians and office staff.”

He feels he’s getting his money’s worth for the cut the franchisor takes. “It took exactly four years for the mosquito business to outgrow my lawn care business, which has been around for 11 years. From 2015 to 2016, we grew by 92 percent, and last year, from 2016 to 2017, by 125 percent. My goal the first year of actual spraying, 2014, was to do $40,000 in mosquito control alone. We did $100,000. In 2015 we [more than] doubled that, to $222,000.”

How long does a mosquito treatment typically last? “The general rule of thumb is 28 to 30 days, in an ideal situation,” says Clark. “But, it depends on the environment, on how much rainfall there is, and on what’s in or near the location. If it’s a heavily wooded area, the mosquitoes may encroach quicker.”

Environmental factors include whether or not a property is close to a pond or any standing water. That’s where their eggs are laid, and the larvae grow. Even an upturned bottle cap can hold enough water for mosquitoes to breed in.

A regular program at Clark’s company is about six applications throughout the summer. Someone who lives in a heavily wooded area might need more.

Shoo!

Another way to deal with the nasty pests is to simply repel them. This could be a good alternative for a customer who doesn’t want any chemicals sprayed in his yard.

One of these products, called Haven, looks like a landscape lighting fixture. It works by heat-atomizing the contents of a little replaceable bottle of metofluthrin, a U.S. Environmenal Protection Agency approved repellent that’s safe for humans and pets (DEET is not used because it’s designed to be applied to the skin). The company claims it’s 92.5 percent effective.

“They don’t want to land on you, and just want to get out of the area,” says Jeremy Yingst, global category manager for manufacturer Broan-NuTone, Hartford, Wisconsin.

Each fixture covers about 110 square feet. “An average-sized deck or patio would need about four fixtures,” says Yingst. Each bottle lasts about 216 hours.

Thomas prefers killing to the repellent approach.

“With repellent, some bugs will still get through,” he says. “But spraying the habitat and killing the larvae gives you 28 days of effectiveness, with zero mosquitoes.”

Keeping these annoying and even dangerous pests from ruining your clients’ summer outdoor fun can be a lucrative side service. Want to take a swat at it?