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Mosquito fighter has soft spot for bugs

Published September 5, 2006 12:54 am

Abatement chief: Utah County's West Nile warrior boasts vast knowledge of insects
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

OREM - Bob Mower has a bug problem - and it has nothing to do with the thousands of creeping, crawling critters infesting his basement.

His problem is bigger than that - much bigger.



As director of Utah County's mosquito-abatement program, Mower is the first line of defense against hundreds of thousands of pesky mosquitoes, an increasing number of which now carry the potentially deadly West Nile virus.

"Before now, mosquito abatement was just taking care of complaints," he says. "It's just been a completely different ballgame."

For 28 years, Mower has turned his interest in all things insect into public service by working part time each summer for the county's mosquito team.

Last year, just as West Nile was on the verge of exploding in Utah, Mower took the job as director. This year, West Nile has reached its highest activity ever recorded in the state.

A total of 65 human cases have been reported by the Utah Department of Health, compared with 12 at the same time last year. Three infected Utahns have died, two of those in Utah County.

And although Mower is "one of the most unassuming people in the entire world," according to his wife, Carol, he has become one of the most important in protecting Utah County's public health.

"It weighs very heavily on him," she says. "Any time anybody is ill or has side effects or passes away, that's a horrible thing. Our home is sad on those days."

An amped-up mosquito-abatement program has helped minimize those sad days.

For six straight weeks this summer, Utah County attacked the mosquito populations through aerial spraying along Utah Lake's eastern border. On the ground, crews have continuously assaulted any of the irritating insects they can reach.

"How can this little thing be packing something that makes such a change in people's lives?" Mower asks.

The West Nile threat certainly has changed his life. This summer has been especially busy - much busier than it could have been for Mower.

After teaching biology and environmental science at Orem High for 32 years, the father of five retired last year.

But there has been no sitting back in lawn chairs, sipping lemonade in the summer evenings at his Orem home.

"It wasn't quite what I was planning on," he says.

Then again, Mower says, if he wasn't doing mosquito abatement he probably still would be out at night catching bugs. He dealt with little creatures every day growing up on a farm in central Utah's Fairview, but it was an entomology class at Brigham Young University that really got him buzzed about bugs.

He packed bachelor's and master's degrees in his lunch pail more than three decades ago and has been out in nature catching, analyzing and explaining bugs ever since.

"He's quite the naturalist," says Joseph Miner, director for the Utah County Health Department. "He knows every plant and every insect and bird that you can show him."

Most of those insects can be found in Mower's Orem museum, er, home.

Thousands of specimens are neatly pinned in dozens of display boxes that fill his basement cabinets. The ones from his most recent outing remain in the freezer or the food-storage room.

"For a girl that used to scream at bugs, I think I do pretty well," Carol Mower says.

His favorite is the tiger moth, a fiery red, tiger-striped insect he has been studying for 25 years. He also has rhinoceros beetles, butterflies and walking sticks, some as big as the palm of your hand.

"I call this one the 'Ooo and Ahh Drawer,' " Mower says, pulling out a display box with a dozen terrifyingly large insects, some of which come from as far away as Africa.

Yes, for those who get squirmy around anything wormy, Mower's basement is no place to be.

Mower doesn't hide his interests: The license plate on his white 1999 Nissan pickup reads "arctiid," the scientific name of a tiger moth.

Still, Mower isn't all bugs.

His backyard boasts a garden, with tomatoes and corn contending with blackberries and beans for sunlight. A dozen bird feeders hang from trees just feet from his back door.

When he can find time, he also gives the Orem High swim team a hand, acting as the travel coach. All five of his children have swum competitively, which Mower says teaches discipline.

It's the same thing, perhaps, that has helped Mower as mosquito-abatement director.

Though West Nile numbers are up dramatically this year, they're not nearly as high as they might have been without the extra spraying Mower has commissioned. County data shows mosquito numbers peaked at less than half of last year's high.

Mower ''really has been on top of very close, accurate monitoring of the mosquito traps," Miner says.

But Mower's work is not done. Even though most of his part-time crews have returned to school, teaching positions or other jobs, there still are plenty of mosquitoes carrying the virus.

And the pesky suckers will be back again next year. As will Mower, sloshing around the muddy marshes, battling bugs, bolstering his creepy collection and protecting the public health.

thollingshead@sltrib.com

Tips to avoid West Nile:

* Wear long sleeves and pants at night.

* Use repellent with DEET after sunset.

* Clean out areas of standing water (buckets, bird pools, etc.).

 

 

 

 

 

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