Minnesotan vs. mosquito: An Ice Age-old battle rages anew

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Year in and year out, mosquitoes find a way to suck some of the joy out of outdoor summer activities in Minnesota and beyond.

NORTH MANKATO, Minn. -- Softball is a big deal in this town south of Minneapolis, where nearly two dozen Australian national team players relocated this summer to play for the Aussie Peppers in the National Pro Fastpitch league. They live in dorms at Bethany Lutheran College, remember to drive on the right and rave about the warmth and hospitality of their new neighbors.

Well, all but one.

Summer in Minnesota means the savage return of the unofficial state bird -- the mosquito. "We call them mozzies," Peppers coach Laing Harrow said. Hungry and persistent, mosquitoes are so prevalent that the Minnesota Twins used to feature one named Skeeta in their between innings mascot race at Target Field. This season, the Twins gave Skeeta a well-deserved promotion to "mascot manager."

As for the Aussies, they consider the "mozzies" and their ear-buzzing relative, the gnat, worse than any flying pest they've encountered in Australia.

"They're relentless! Oh my goodness," catcher Carmie Sorensen said following a night game earlier this month, rubbing one leg against the other to scratch a recent bite. "Back home, you get bitten, and you feel it the next day. Here, straightaway. They're nasty."

Whether mosquitoes in Minnesota are worse than anywhere else in the Midwest is open to debate, though it hardly lessens the annoyance or the risk. Mosquitoes in Minnesota can spread a variety of viruses, including West Nile and La Crosse encephalitis. The highest risk for contraction is in July through September.

The mosquito problem has perplexed Minnesotans for years. But the Aussies might have discovered a solution: a mixture of coconut oil and peppermint concocted by Dr. Deidre Anderson, Softball Australia's athlete well-being and engagement manager.

"I don't know what she's put in it," said corner infielder Stacey Porter, a two-time Olympic medalist for Australia. "But she doused us with it before the game, and it helps a little bit."

A U.S. Department of Agriculture study released last fall said compounds derived from coconut oil can be more effective against mosquitoes and other insects than DEET, the most commonly used chemical repellent. Mike McLean, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District in the Twin Cities, thinks the Aussies could be onto something.

"We always tell people, if you hit on something that works for you, that's really great, stick with it," he said. "But some things that work for one person won't work for another when it comes to some of these home remedies."

Courtesy Metropolitan Mosquito Control District

Standing water, including what's gathered in and around Minnesota's 11,842 lakes, makes for ideal mosquito habitat.

Why is Minnesota such a hotbed for mosquitoes? Blame the glaciers that receded during the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago and left the state with 11,842 lakes, McLean said. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, and Minnesota has tons of it.

"Everybody's got some mosquitoes," McLean said. "But in the upper Midwest -- Minnesota, the Dakotas, Canada, that whole area -- we're blessed with a ton of mosquito breeding habitat. And that's what puts us on the map."

Minnesota's athletes attack the mosquito challenge with research and ingenuity, especially those who prefer more natural solutions to DEET.

Jockey Lori Keith rides at Canterbury Park, a summer thoroughbred and quarter horse track in Shakopee, Minnesota. Originally from England, Keith has won more than 540 races and earned more than $6.4 million at tracks all over the country -- Santa Anita, Arlington Park and Saratoga, to name three. The worst mosquitoes she has encountered? Minnesota, hands down.

They aren't a problem in actual races since a jockey's pants, silks, helmet and goggles provide nearly total cover.

"In a race, you're going fast enough where they don't bug you," she said.

But morning workouts, when riders prefer T-shirts and skip the goggles, leave more skin exposed. Some riders, Keith said, put dryer sheets on their helmets to catch bugs before they zero in.

"Sometimes we think they work," she said, "and sometimes we're not sure."

Morgan Kiem Wolfe/Courtesy National Pro Fastpitch

Stacey Porter says she has noticed some relief from mosquitoes since she started getting doused with a coconut oil concoction before games.

Distance runner Heather Kampf is a three-time Olympic trials qualifier from Inver Grove Heights, a St. Paul suburb. She starred at the University of Minnesota and lives in the area. She said she raced in only one place in the world with worse mosquitoes than Minnesota: Lignano Sabbiadoro in northeast Italy on the Adriatic Sea.

"It's a beach town and must have the right breeding ground for mosquitoes," she said. "I would say Minnesota is second to Lignano as the mosquito capital of the world."

Kampf tabs herself as one of those unlucky people whom mosquitoes seem to swarm to. She tries to run during the day before they come out. If she runs at night, she pulls on light layers to offer as little bare skin as possible. Also, "I try to go out and run with people who the mosquitoes seem to like even more than me," she said.

The Mankato MoonDogs of the Northwoods League, the Midwest version of the Cape Cod League for college baseball players, have dealt with mosquitoes for years at cozy Franklin Rogers Park. The postgame meal for both teams -- usually burgers, brats and sandwiches -- has always featured unwanted buzzing guests. Nothing deterred them, MoonDogs general manager Austin Link said, not even scented candles.

I try to go out and run with people who the mosquitoes seem to like even more than me.
Heather Kampf

"They were just swarming us," Link said. "Everyone [from the visiting team] just wanted to get their food and get on the bus because the mosquitoes were so bad."

That changed two years ago, Link said, after the installation of artificial turf to combat a persistent drainage problem. It came as part of a $4 million stadium upgrade project financed by the club and Mankato taxpayers. Link isn't sure why, but since the change to turf, the mosquitoes haven't been as bountiful.

"It hasn't solved the problem, but it makes it a lot more bearable," Link said.

Meanwhile, about six miles west at Caswell Park, the Aussie Peppers soldier on. They said their coconut oil mixture works better than another solution they were told to try: holding their hands over the heads, under the theory that mosquitoes go the highest point. McLean believes that can help with gnats and black flies, which often attack from above, and even with certain mosquito species. But not all.

"We had one point where every single person on the field, minus the pitcher and catcher, were doing it," said pitcher Coley Ries, a Mankato-area product and one of a smattering of Americans filling out the Peppers roster. "And we're like, what is going on? It's like they had a question."

Anything to keep the Minnesota state bird at bay.

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