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Hearth & Home February 2014

The Greatest Pest

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Are mosquitoes taking a bite out of outdoor living sales?

Think the biggest threat to your business is the Big Box store down the street? It might actually be the lowly mosquito. Scientists say this tiny adversary is biting more than just humans; it could be taking a bite out of sales of outdoor living products, as well.

A study by Rutgers University found that 74 percent of people who live in areas where mosquitoes are not controlled indicate they are spending less time outdoors – about two hours less per week on average – than people who live in areas where mosquitoes are controlled.

“This is really an issue; people are being assaulted,” says Dina Fonseca, MS, PhD, an associate professor in the department of Entomology and graduate department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources at Rutgers University, and a co-author of the study. She says 59 percent of people report that mosquitoes keep them from enjoying outdoor activities.

The findings also revealed that people consider the mosquito problem as bad as high blood pressure or being overweight, and rank it just under gun violence as an issue from which they want their neighborhood to be free.

“Mosquitoes have a significant impact on quality of life,” she adds.

The trend is expected to get worse. The ultra-pesky Asian Tiger Mosquito is gaining a foothold in both urban and suburban communities in the United States. Although not a disease vector to date, the Asian Tiger Mosquito, which likely found its way to the U.S. in tire shipments from Asia, bites all day long, unlike most native mosquito varieties that bite mainly from dusk till dawn.

In addition, heavy rains in spring and early summer in parts of the country have caused mosquito populations to skyrocket, and the threat of West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne illnesses is increasing, forcing people indoors.  

To make matters worse, this boon in mosquitoes has coincided with a bust in the economy.

“The economic downturn has significantly reduced mosquito-control funding and decimated mosquito-control efforts in many areas,” says Fonseca. “Some counties have even decommissioned programs.”

This news does not bode well for manufacturers and retailers of grills, firepits, patio furniture and other outdoor living products. Although there are no statistics showing a correlation between mosquitoes and decreased sales of these products, anecdotal reports and basic logic suggest people may not be willing to invest in backyard amenities if they feel mosquitoes prevent the enjoyment of them.

Economic Impact of Mosquitoes

Skeeter Vac by Blue Rhino.

Mosquito-borne diseases such as viral encephalitis, dengue fever, yellow fever and malaria are among the leading causes of illness and death worldwide, with an estimated 300 million cases annually, according to the World Health Organization. While, thankfully, here in North America these serious maladies are not widespread, mosquitoes still carry diseases and wreak havoc with our quality of life.

In 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a record 5,387 cases of West Nile Virus in the U.S., with 243 deaths. The epicenter of the outbreak was in Texas with 1,886 recorded cases and 89 deaths at an estimated $47 million economic cost.

The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials notes mosquitos also pose a significant threat to many outdoor-based industries, including tourism, biking, camping, rafting, kayaking and other recreational pursuits. The group says sales, jobs, local taxes and the ability to live an outdoor lifestyle are all negatively impacted in the absence of proper mosquito control programs.

“I get emails from people every day, saying, ‘I can’t enjoy my yard or have a barbecue with the neighbors without getting eaten alive, or I’d like to have a backyard wedding but how can I control the mosquitoes?’” notes Joseph Conlon, technical advisor for the American Mosquito Control Association. “People are suffering due to mosquitoes and there are enormous implications for every industry involved with outdoor living.”

Troublesome mosquitoes are not new. In fact, the diaries of explorers Lewis and Clark chronicle the aggravation caused by these annoying pests as the two trekked through the then-pristine western United States in 1804.

New Jersey, where mosquitoes are often jokingly referred to as the state bird, created its first mosquito commission in 1912 to manage an overwhelming outbreak of salt marsh mosquitoes. In the 1940s, the state’s seaside resort community of Cape May demanded better mosquito control to resurrect declining tourism in the area; it worked.

“The impact of the mosquito on tourism and the outdoor living industry was realized very early on,” says Fonseca.

What Control Methods Work?

Mosquito Magnet.

Mosquito capture devices such as Mosquito Magnet and Blue Rhino’s Skeeter Vac can be effective, as well as a sales opportunity for specialty retailers. Both are propane-fueled devices that generate carbon dioxide and utilize chemical attractants to mimic human respiration, heat and body scents. Once the device is positioned correctly in the yard – in the shade, near foliage and near any standing water – mosquitoes are lured to the machines, captured and then die.

The goal is to deplete the females to reduce biting (only female mosquitoes bite; they require the blood protein to nourish their eggs) and reproduction (a single female mosquito can produce over 400 million offspring). After a few weeks of use, the mosquito population is reduced, and subsequent generations are diminished.

Testimonials swear to the success of these devices, however, “The category has remained flat,” notes Chris Hartley of Blue Rhino, maker of Skeeter Vac. “But there is a lot of potential. Mosquitoes are a big issue in some parts of the U.S. and Canada. This product is ideal for specialty retailers because it’s not found in Big Box stores, and since it relies on consumables – lures, traps and propane – it offers ongoing add-on sales opportunities, as well.”

“The target market for our product is the same as that of high-end patio furniture, outdoor kitchens and firepits,” says Julien Godbarge, brand manager of mosquito management systems for Woodstream Corporation, the maker of Mosquito Magnet. “We are looking for homeowners who see their yard as living space. For someone who is spending $10,000 or more on an outdoor living environment, a $500 or $800 Mosquito Magnet is suddenly a very easy add-on sale because the consumer wants to be able to use their investment.”

Conlon says the use of outdoor floor fans on patios can be an effective low-tech deterrent. Because mosquitoes are poor flyers, the fan’s breezes keep them away. As for other methods available to consumers, Fonseca and Conlon agree that tiki torches, citronella candles, bug zappers, essential oils and devices that emit electronic sound frequencies work poorly or not at all.

Both strongly discourage the use of automatic mosquito misting systems that intermittently and indiscriminately apply insecticides.

“These can be damaging to humans, and mosquitoes may actually develop resistance to them,” Fonseca says.

Consumer education programs, which teach community residents to eliminate standing water on their property as a way to reduce mosquito breeding grounds, have had mixed results. Oddly, Fonseca has found that education campaigns have worked in poorer, less-educated urban communities, significantly decreasing the mosquito population there, but education efforts have failed to yield cooperation and results in wealthier, more educated locales.

What works best, according to Fonseca and Conlon, is an integrated approach involving surveillance and monitoring of mosquito populations, eliminating sources of standing water where mosquitoes lay their eggs, applying larvicides to water sources to kill mosquitoes in the larval state, and finally when mosquito populations exceed accepted limits, implementing ultra-low-volume insecticide sprays administered by truck or aircraft to target flying adult mosquitoes.

A follow-up study by Fonseca’s team and health economists at Brandeis University found people would be willing to pay nearly four times the amount of tax money they currently contribute toward mosquito control in their communities. But instead of stepping up control efforts, Fonseca has noticed a recent tightening of government regulations, making it more difficult for mosquito commissions to do their job.

“It’s easier to be anti-pesticide because that is considered politically correct,” says Conlon. “But we must educate people about the benefits of using pesticides in certain circumstances. You must be educated on both sides of an issue to make an informed decision. The risk of getting West Nile Virus is far worse than any risk from a mosquito pesticide.”

“Unfortunately, when mosquito control programs are cut or restricted, it forces people to take matters into their own hands and then we don’t have control over the kind and amount of insecticide people apply – it’s usually too much and too harmful,” Fonseca says.

“I am an environmentalist and a conservationist, but I understand and support organized and managed mosquito control as a means of reducing the amount of insecticide that ends up in the environment. Scientists at mosquito control agencies understand the biology of mosquitoes and know the most effective times and conditions to apply organic larvicides or insecticides, so they are able to address the problem using the least amount of insecticide.”

What Does This Mean for Specialty Retailers?

Anything that prevents consumers from spending time outdoors relaxing on patio furniture, gathering around a firepit or enjoying a barbecue in their outdoor kitchen – or deters the purchase of these items – should be considered a threat to business and taken seriously.

But what can be done about it?

Is mosquito control an issue for the industry to get behind? Would it be prudent for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA) to join forces with other trade groups to advocate for better mosquito control?

Would it be beneficial to team with the American Mosquito Control Association to lobby against legislative prohibitions or restrictions on mosquito abatement?

Some say yes, or at least that these topics are worthy of discussion.

It would not be the first time the industry worked on a cooperative campaign to benefit sales of grills and outdoor living products.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Barbecue Industry Association (BIA), which went on to merge with the hearth and patio industries to form the HPBA, waged a Congressional lobbying effort to extend Daylight Saving Time. The BIA teamed with the National Golf Foundation, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Foodservice and Lodging Institute, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the Amateur Softball Association and a number of other trade groups and individual companies to form the Daylight Saving Time Coalition.

According to an Associated Press article at that time, the group argued that extending daylight hours for an extra four weeks would yield a potential $4 billion boost to the nation’s economy. The barbecue industry was expected to gain $100 million in additional sales of grills, charcoal and other products.

In 1986, after nearly a 10-year effort, the group succeeded in moving Daylight Saving Time three weeks earlier, from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in April. Congress, however, denied the group’s request for a fourth week of added daylight through the first Sunday in November.

(Nine years later Congress passed the Energy Act of 2005, which extended the length of DST to the first Sunday in November, effective in 2007.)

It’s difficult to determine the effect the extra daylight hours had on barbecue industry sales. Grill shipments did increase five percent in the two years after

Daylight Saving Time was extended, but as HPBA only has charcoal shipment data dating back to 1993, the impact on charcoal sales is unknown.

An industry push behind mosquito abatement likely would be more complicated than the battle to extend Daylight Saving Time. Unlike the Daylight Saving Time Coalition, which was able to concentrate lobbying efforts on Congress, there is not one national administrator or group responsible for setting mosquito control schedules, techniques or funding.

Mosquito control is, by necessity, very localized, taking into account geography, climate and other conditions to better respond to and manage the mosquito population of a given area. Control efforts are typically handled by multiple mosquito control districts or agencies within each state that are able to tailor a flexible management program based on changing situations and needs.

Sue Crosby, HPBA Communications director, says if members are interested in investigating the mosquito issue, a good place to start might be with HPBA’s consumer survey. She says that, while the survey has asked consumers why they like to cook outdoors, it does not ask about what factors prevent them from enjoying their outdoor living environment.

The answers might just reveal, as many suspect, that this tiny pest is taking a big bite out of outdoor living product sales.

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