Educators Bite Back With the 'Bug Bus'

Times Staff Writer

Among fifth-graders, gross is good. On Wednesday, 10- and 11-year-olds at Morningside Elementary School groaned, then grinned, when vector control specialist Victor Paniagua said his colleagues draw blood from control flocks of chickens and wild birds to see if they carry the West Nile virus and other diseases spread by mosquitoes.

Paniagua is part of a team from the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District that enlists elementary schoolchildren in the ongoing battle against mosquitoes and other creatures that spread disease. Standing water -- the perfect incubator for mosquitoes -- is vector control's eternal enemy, especially in the San Fernando Valley, with its soaring temperatures and thousands of backyard pools.

The latest weapon in the team's arsenal is the Bug Bus, a 35-foot-long science classroom on wheels. On Wednesday, the RV-turned-mosquito mobile was in San Fernando, and fifth-graders climbed aboard to study the mosquito's compound eye and learn how the insect spreads disease: It feasts on the blood of an infected bird, ingests a virus or other dangerous organism, then spreads the disease through its saliva when it bites a human or other animal.

The ickier the topic, the more the children seemed to like it. Ten-year-old Diego Alexander Lopez was fascinated by the mounted tarantula hawk on the Bug Bus.

A tarantula hawk is actually a wasp that stings and paralyzes a tarantula, then lays its egg on the immobilized insect, Diego explained. The wasp's grub then feasts on the hapless tarantula.

Yucky Africanized bees were another well-received topic. Many children said they were afraid of bees, and all were surprised to learn that mosquitoes kill many more people than Africanized bees.

Paniagua, 36, asked the boys and girls what they would do if bees were chasing them.

"Jump into a pool," one boy said.

"Then what will you do?" Paniagua asked.

"Hold my breath," the boy answered.

Be prepared to hold it for a long time, Paniagua warned, "because the bees are going to be there for a couple of days."

The right answer, the children learned, was to get as far away from them as possible. Vector control no longer removes backyard beehives, and Paniagua advised the children to call 911 if someone is stung and seems to be in distress.

Vector control believes its Bug Bus is the first in the country, the district's Stephanie Miladin said. Designed to give an interactive science experience to fifth-graders in underserved schools, the program will reach more than 9,000 students in 82 schools this year -- its first full year of operation.

Run through the nonprofit Greater Los Angeles Mosquito and Vector Control Public Health and Educational Foundation, the program costs about $150,000 a year.

In the bus, the children tallied up the comparative body count as goldfish, catfish and mosquito fish gobbled up mosquito larvae. The mosquito fish won handily, although Bug Bus staff say the small silver fish -- one of the district's favorite means of controlling mosquitoes -- are even hungrier during the summer when mosquitoes are most prevalent.

Jennifer Wilson, 24, who helped supervise the children as they played disease-vector computer games in the bus, said working for vector control has changed the way she looks at mosquitoes.

The Monrovia resident removed the kiddie pool from her backyard because it was a potential breeding ground. She no longer collects rainwater for her plants, and tends to hold parties indoors now, especially on summer nights when mosquitoes rule the backyards of the Southland.

The downside of the job is watching the spread of the West Nile virus on the Internet map maintained by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wilson said.

The upside is a newfound passion for clothing and other items featuring insects.

"I've got 'Bite Me' socks with mosquitoes on them," she said, as well a raft of skeeter T-shirts. She also collects postage stamps, on EBay, issued in the early 1960s when the World Health Organization launched an ambitious World United Against Malaria campaign.

Every child who goes through the Bug Bus becomes an honorary vector inspector, able to spot and destroy the places where mosquitoes multiply, sometimes by simply flipping over a trash-can lid full of stagnant water.

Children stalk dangerous insects with a zeal few adults can match: "They're the ones who are going to be crawling through their yards looking for water sources," Wilson said.

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