Winnipeg Mosquito Wizard

July 11, 2012, 12:46 p.m.

You know what they say: Winnipeg is bitterly freezing cold in the winter, and all we have to look forward to in summer is the annual plague of mosquitoes – giant ones, at that. Winnipeg’s mosquitoes are “so big, they could carry off small children!” the pundits say. “The mosquito is considered Manitoba’s provincial bird!” goes another knee-slapper.

Hilarious – or not, if you aren’t able to spend a few weeks outdoors on the deck before the snow returns.

But this summer, for the second straight year, Winnipeg is enjoying a mysterious calm. Each evening, before I walk the dog, I prepare for the onslaught, and each evening, I shake my head in disbelief. There are no mosquitoes to speak of. Where are they?

Aboriginal folklore has it that the annual plague of mosquitoes was punishment for the killing of a supernatural power. Since Manitoba became a province in 1870 and the city of Winnipeg was incorporated a few years later, its citizens have been fighting a losing battle against the pests. In the 1920s, the city enlisted Dr. Charles O’Donoghue, a professor of zoology at the University of Manitoba, to head an anti-mosquito campaign. His charges applied crankcase oil to mosquito hatching areas, but results were less than positive.

In the decades since, all sorts of strategies have been employed, including assaults with DDT, now recognized as a harmful chemical agent. Even the more palatable insecticide malathion has generated heated civic debates over fogging, neighbour against neighbour, all for minimal results. Anyone who has grown up in Winnipeg can attest that dousing oneself in mosquito repellent is as common as lotion is at the beach.

About eight years ago, however, things began to change. The city hired a new entomologist, Taz Stuart, then 35, who had been working in that position for a dozen years in Regina. He did not, and does not, look like a typical entomologist; with a shock of dark, shoulder-length curls, he could be from the 1970s, and would have looked good beside Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages.

In any case, only in Winnipeg could an entomologist gain such celebrity. Asked a few years ago about what has changed since moving from Regina, he said: “I’m definitely in the news a lot more.”

Although he plays down his wizardry, Mr. Stuart is well worth his six-figure salary, which pays him only slightly less than Mayor Sam Katz. He developed a system based on biological alternatives to chemicals, dispatching city crews to use environmentally friendly larvicide on potential mosquito nesting areas. He has also urged Winnipeggers to rid their properties of standing water after rainfall. In previous years, he had some success breeding thousands of dragon flies, which in turn depleted the mosquitoes.

Like a clever politician, he often predicts the worst scenario. In early June, after some significant rain, he announced that Winnipeggers should prepare themselves: The mosquito blitz would begin soon. Attention was paid to the daily trap-count report. If more than 100 mosquitoes were discovered, the battle could be lost. But the trap counts were low and the mosquitoes have not descended, making Mr. Stuart look more wizardly than ever.

The weather has been unusually warm but pleasant in Winnipeg so far this summer. Life is good, the beer is cold, the deck is inviting – and, best of all, thanks to Taz Stuart’s magic, that can of mosquito repellent is collecting dust.

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