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Mosquitoes return! New Jersey bites back.

A week had passed since Jay Radano lugged 1,500 wriggling minnows into a dark woods in Berlin Township. Now he was back to see the results.

A week had passed since Jay Radano lugged 1,500 wriggling minnows into a dark woods in Berlin Township.

Now he was back to see the results.

Parking his pickup truck Wednesday at the end of Jefferson Avenue, he reached for a white plastic cup on a long stick - one of the many tools of his trade - and swung the door open.

"Watch your step," said Radano, an inspector with the Camden County Mosquito Control Commission, and made his way down slippery underbrush toward a small, shaded lagoon.

Mosquitoes are an annoyance to nearly anyone who spends time outdoors. But your itchy ankles and flailing head slaps are not why New Jersey will spend more than $10 million this year combating winged critters with such names as aedes albopictus and anopheles punctapennis.

Mosquitoes can carry diseases. Some, such as malaria and yellow fever in far parts of the world, and West Nile and Eastern equine encephalitis locally, can paralyze, even kill humans.

And so for urgent health reasons all the state's 21 counties have been fighting a round-the-clock, largely unseen war for more than a century against the things that go nnnnnn in the night.

Each is legally mandated to operate a mosquito control commission that monitors for the presence and type of mosquitoes, sends samples to state labs for disease testing, and controls the population as best it can.

Pennsylvania does not have mosquito control commissions like New Jersey, but 25 counties receive DEP grants to conduct surveillance and control populations.

In 24 other counties, Pennsylvania's DEP monitors and controls for West Nile virus, and in the remaining 18 counties the department "will conduct control operations if needed," said DEP spokesman Neil Shader.

But in Camden County, as in most of New Jersey, the mosquito war is year-round.

"There are 350 locations we hit regularly" Radano explained on the drive to the little lagoon, a consistent "hot spot" in the nine townships he tours on his inspection route.

A week earlier, he said, this persistent five-foot-wide pond at the end of a concrete drainage pipe had been "bubbling" with tens of thousands of mosquito larvae. "It was like piranhas," he said.

But as he arrived this afternoon the water was mirror still.

He dipped the white plastic cup into the limpid darkness, lifted it out, and pointed to the solitary dead adult mosquito floating in it. "That's all that's left," he said.

The minnows had eaten them all.

Gone are the days when trucks would roll through towns spraying lawns, woods, pets, and patios - and the laughing kids chasing them on bikes - with an acrid fog of DDT in diesel fuel.

New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states still use what they describe as environmentally approved insecticide fogs and pellets, with names such as methoprene, BTI, and temephos, to control mosquitoes.

"We use ultralow volume foggers that put out about an ounce an acre," said Erin Nooney, Burlington County's mosquito control director.

The county uses a helicopter for spraying infestations larger than five acres.

More than 90 percent of sprays and pellets are used to kill larvae, not flying insects, said Tom Verna, the county's entomologist.

But habitat improvement, public education, trapping and testing insects for disease, and mandatory, near-instant reports of human infection now play a far larger role in the mosquito wars than they did in decades past.

Since 1991, New Jersey has also been using a variety of voracious, larva-eating minnows such as those that Radano used in the pond. Last week, the state significantly beefed up that arsenal.

An hour before Radano checked on the lagoon, DEP commissioner Bob Martin had inaugurated a new minnow hatchery at Camden County's mosquito control complex in Lindenwold.

"This is the first batch going in," he told a news conference as he poured a bucketful of two-inch "fathead" minnows into the first of four fiberglass troughs filled with running water and shaded by a shed roof.

For 25 years any county wanting to use minnows for mosquito control had to send a truck and driver to the state's hatchery in Hackettstown. It was a 200-mile round trip from Camden County, and 350 miles from Cape May.

"This was the idea of our inspectors, going back and forth to North Jersey," explained Jack Sworaski, who was part of the small crowd watching Martin.

On a recent visit to Hackettstown, he said, they had asked whether they could take an unused holding tank back to Lindenwold to store more minnows.

From that conversation sprang the creation of the new hatchery, funded by the DEP. The state will provide 600,000 minnows this year, and delivered 50,000 last week.

Thwarting mosquitoes from breeding, and blocking larvae from hatching, "is a far better approach than trying to kill the adults," explained Christopher Rinn, assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, who was present for last week's introduction of minnows at Lindenwold.

Although the U.S. public has grown anxious about the Zika virus, which can cause microencephaly in fetuses, Rinn and other experts said last week that West Nile and Eastern equine encephalitis still pose a far greater hazard in New Jersey and Pennsylvania than Zika.

West Nile virus, a potentially crippling encephalitis, first appeared in New Jersey in 1999 and in Pennsylvania a year later.

Last year, it was discovered in mosquito populations in all 21 New Jersey counties by the end of October, and 26 humans were infected, two fatally.

This year, West Nile has been found only in mosquitoes in Monmouth County, with no human infection.

In Pennsylvania, mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus were found in all but 11 counties in 2015. Thirty people in 14 counties were infected, mostly in the southeastern corner of the state. None were fatal.

Mosquitoes carrying West Nile have been found this year in 13 Pennsylvania counties, with one human infection in Indiana County. Infestation rates typically rise through to October, however.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania also monitor for other possible diseases, including dengue fever, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, and Zika virus. Pennsylvania's monitoring stations for Zika are concentrated in the southeast, according to the DEP, where West Nile has been dominant.

Mosquito control commissions use special traps equipped with light or CO2 emitters to catch species for identification and disease testing.

But for a quick check on population density, a tried-and-true method is to "send a guy out in shorts and a T-shirt and stand there with his arms out," said Joe New, an inspector with Burlington County's mosquito control commission. This, he said, is usually done in the marshes along the Mullica River and its tributaries.

"If we count more than 100 on him in a minute," said New, "we call in the fixed-wing aircraft."

doreilly@phillynews.com

856-779-3841

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