It's easy to discern the start of West Nile virus season if you keep your eye on the Mosquito Lady.
When the Mosquito Lady emerges from her indoor offices, the season has launched.
Luz Maria Rodriguez is the Mosquito Lady. At least that's the nickname she's been given in the current issue of Mosquito Control Magazine, a trade publication.
Rodriguez's real title is public information officer for the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District. She's also an ambassador for the district's public education campaign, Fight the Bite.
Her goal is to reduce the number of people who contract West Nile virus, which federal and state health officials project will this year once again pose a statewide threat to public health.
Last year, Sacramento County recorded 29 cases of West Nile virus, which is spread by mosquitoes. California and the nation faced one of the worst West Nile virus outbreaks since the disease was discovered in the U.S. in 1999. Statewide, there were 479 confirmed human cases and 20 deaths, according to the state Department of Public Health.
Symptoms mimic the flu, and most people recover from the virus with no lasting health issues. However, those who get severely ill can suffer serious neurological problems and even death.
Already this year, Rodriguez and her crew have raised awareness about the threat on the local TV news, in schools, parks, festivals and local homeless shelters in Yolo County and Sacramento County.
As she distributes insecticide wipes to indigents who camp by the river; as she hands out repellent to parents of kids who swarm the district's informational booth, Rodriguez moves easily from English to Spanish, instructing all.
The Mosquito Buster Squad Activity Book ("download your free Mosquito Buster Squad certificate!") goes where Rodriguez does. Other goodies include temporary tattoos of mosquitoes, free pencils with the district's message, free note pads, pamphlets and repellent wipes in individual wrapping.
Kids scoop up the swag quickly, but the most beloved parts of Rodriguez's traveling booth are the displays of dead flying bugs and the see-through containers showing mosquito larvae, mature mosquitoes - and the predator mosquito fish that eat larvae.
At a recent Kids Day celebration at Ferns Park in Woodland, Rodriguez hosted a constant stream of hundreds of kids and their parents, most of whom spoke only Spanish.
"The concept of repellent is fairly new in the Latino community," she said. "Sometimes it's a grab-fest, but people here seem genuinely interested in learning about the repellent."
Others flocked toward the dead-flying-bug display.
"The kids will say, ooooh, cool," said Frank Mendez, manning the booth with Rodriguez. "The parents are the ones who say 'yuck.' "
Among the specimens on display was a large, 4-inch- long dragonfly, identified as an important predator of mosquitoes.
Also capturing the imagination of onlookers was the crane fly, which looks exactly like a giant, 2-inch-long version of a mosquito. Many people mistakenly believe nature intended this copycat insect to be a mosquito-eater.
Others, parents mostly, are downright afraid of what they see as a humongous mosquito.
Not to worry, Rodriguez says. The crane fly neither eats mosquitoes nor poses a risk to people. It's slow and has a very short life span, she says. By the time it sneaks inside the home, its time is about up.
When it comes to the see-through containers, showing squiggly larvae, mature mosquitoes and mosquito-eating fish, the clear crowd favorite is watching the fish - a tad bigger than guppies - gobble up larvae in a matter of seconds.
Mosquito fish can eat 200 to 300 larvae a day, essentially nipping them in the bud before they sprout wings, Rodriguez said.
That's why, if you have an abandoned pool or water feature where mosquitoes can breed, the district offers to deliver a supply of the fish to your home.
And, as always, where the Mosquito Lady goes, the district's catchy message about the seven "Ds" goes too.
Drain any standing water that may produce mosquitoes.
Dawn and dusk are times to avoid being outdoors, because mosquitoes are more active then.
Dress appropriately by wearing long sleeves and pants when outside.
Defend against mosquitoes by using an effective insect repellent, such as DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. For casual outdoor activities, choose a repellent containing around 5 percent DEET. If you're going camping, select a repellent with a concentration closer to 25 percent DEET.
Doors and window screens should be in good working condition to keep mosquitoes out.
District personnel can be reached for mosquito problems at (800) 429-1022 or go online to fightthebite.net
Call The Bee's Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270. Follow her on Twitter @cynthiahcraft.