BLUFFTON - Driving up and down every street and alley in town in an old pickup truck in the middle of the night doesn't seem strange to Deb Weihrauch and her friend, Ellen Beach.
For four years, the pair has gone out for six hours, two nights a week to spritz 41 miles of the town with an environmentally friendly mosquito spray. Both night owls, they figure they were meant to be Bluffton's two-person mosquito control team.
They love their job.
“But we don't just do this for fun,” Mrs. Weihrauch, 47, said. “We do this because we don't want encephalitis, hepatitis, or West Nile virus in our village.”
Since 1998, when the mosquito control program began, the neighboring villages of Mount Cory in Hancock County and Gilboa in Putnam County have contracted with Bluffton to have the bug busters spray every other week in their towns.
This year, with the increased threat of the mosquito-borne West Nile virus, the villages of Beaverdam and Pandora signed up for the service too, said Nancy Benroth, assistant village administrator.
The potentially deadly disease was expected to reach Ohio this summer, and infected dead birds have been found in West Toledo and Lake County.
The small college town of Bluffton, which sits on the Hancock-Allen County border, has been surprisingly progressive when it comes to fighting mosquitoes.
“A majority of the people are glad we do it because of the encephalitis and West Nile virus scare,” Ms. Benroth said. “It's no fun to go out at night and not be able to enjoy the outdoors at all because the mosquitoes drive you in.”
Bluffton, like many towns, had fogged the streets for years with a highly toxic mixture of diesel fuel and bug killer before halting the practice in the 1980s because of health concerns, Ms. Benroth said.
She began researching more health-conscious ways of controlling mosquitoes after a particularly nasty summer five years ago when residents were complaining they couldn't go outside without getting eaten alive.
What she found, and what the village still uses, was Biomist, “the least toxic but effective” mosquito spray, Ms. Benroth said. Biomist, which contains the active ingredient used in lice killers, does not kill mosquitoes but causes their legs to fall off so they can't fly and therefore can't feed.
The village also routinely places briquettes containing mosquito hormone interrupters in the village's catch basins where mosquitoes breed. The briquettes stop the larvae from maturing. In addition, the village sprays pellets that kill mosquito larvae along ditches, riverbanks, and other low-lying areas where water collects.
“We have a comprehensive plan,” Ms. Benroth said. “We try to get rid of the mosquitoes before they become adults.”
The mosquito control effort costs Bluffton in excess of $15,000 a year, which includes the $6-something an hour that Mrs. Weihrauch and Mrs. Beach earn for the night patrols.
Mrs. Weihrauch, a school bus driver and a regular at village council meetings, said she volunteered for the job to help Ms. Benroth, who was doing it herself and needed a navigator.
Because the job took “a good six hours” beginning at dusk twice a week, Mrs. Weihrauch soon recruited her neighbor and friend, Mrs. Beach, 62, to take Ms. Benroth's place.
Perched in the old pickup, they talk, complain, laugh, eat, sing along to country and gospel music tapes, marvel at the new houses being built in town, count the new graves at the cemetery, and do some public relations for the village too.
“We have one little boy who loves it when we drive up,” Mrs. Weihrauch said. “The other night, we heard him two and a half houses away yelling, `The bug ladies are coming. The bug ladies are coming.'”
Because they creep through streets, alleys, the park, and the cemetery at 10 mph while most others are sleeping, they keep an eye out for trouble and have a radio to report anything they see to police - children out past curfew, suspicious cars.
Both licensed practical nurses, the bug ladies say only a few residents annually request that they bypass their property. Both are confident the Biomist is safe and effective, especially since they drive around in the mist with the village truck windows open.
“Some people still close their windows when they hear us coming,” Mrs. Beach said. “Some people believe it's going to hurt them.”
“It always bothers me that some people think we're doing something bad with this when their getting bit could mean they're getting God knows what,” Mrs. Weihrauch added.
For the most part, the only complaints they hear is in the spring when the mosquitoes are stirring but it's too cold to fire up the mister.
“In the spring, we hear, `WHEN are you going to start spraying?'” Mrs. Beach said.