Exterior – The Anastasia Mosquito Control District’s Vector Education Center and Science Museum officially opens to the public March 26. | Noah Hertz, Jacksonville Today.

Now you can take the kids to the mosquito museum in St. Augustine

Published on March 20, 2024 at 4:40 pm

If learning should be fun, how do you teach people about topics like pest control, dengue fever and mosquitoes? The Anastasia Mosquito Control District in St. Augustine’s answer to that question: the new Disease Vector Education Center and Science Museum, opening to the public next Tuesday, March 26.

The museum, at 120 EOC Drive, houses exhibits on mosquitoes and other pesky insects — and the diseases they carry — in ways that might be interesting for young kids and adults alike. There’s a flight simulator complete with video filmed from one of the agency’s mosquito control helicopters. Interactive games teach kids about diseases. And larger-than-life bugs and hundreds of their real counterparts are pinned up on the walls and ceilings, courtesy of the University of Florida and Florida Department of Agriculture. 

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The opening comes after five years of work on the center, which cost around $4.5 million. While the district hoped to open it as early as 2022, COVID-related delays repeatedly held things up.

The project hasn’t been without its detractors. Members of the St. Johns Board of County Commissioners criticized the mosquito control district — which levies property taxes separate from the county — for “wasteful” spending on the project back in 2021. But while County Commissioner Henry Dean said at that time he couldn’t see the justification for the costly facility, he’s since come around on it.

He tells Jacksonville Today his initial concern was that a “mosquito museum” was outside of the district’s mission. An “education center” though? Not so much. 

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“They actually do great work controlling the mosquito problem,” Dean says.

Exhibits like this one on the life cycle of a mosquito are all a part of the Anastasia Mosquito Control District’s mission to make bugs that tend to irritate us and make us sick interesting to a new generation of aspiring scientists. | Noah Hertz, Jacksonville Today

What’s all the buzz about?

The contents of the education center are the brainchild of the mosquito control district’s business manager, Richard Weaver. Weaver, a self-proclaimed “Disney nut,” had never designed anything like the center before, but you wouldn’t know it from its exhibits. 

His team of designers and architects includes Nancy Lindahl, a set designer with experience putting together experiences arguably as scary as malaria at Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights. 

“Our whole purpose is to educate,” Weaver says. 

He believes the St. Augustine center will be the only one focused on disease vectors and mosquitoes in the U.S. There are two in China, Weaver says, and the district’s executive director, Dr. Rui-De Xue, was born in China and took a trip to one of the centers for inspiration. 

Anastasia Mosquito Control District Board Member Trish Becker with a — thankfully — not to scale mosquito statue outside of the district’s new education center and museum. | Noah Hertz, Jacksonville Today

Weaver believes the center offers just as many activities for kids as there are tidbits of information that’ll teach even the most bug-loving adult something new. 

There’s even local flare, like an area designed to look like St. Augustine’s Huguenot Cemetery to display particularly dangerous insect specimens and a pest control sprayer uniform that once belonged to one of the agency’s own. 

While the center won’t be fully open to the public until its grand opening March 26 — and even then, finishing touches will be added to several exhibits through the summertime — Weaver and his team hosted a group of homeschool students at the center March 20. Among them was 10-year-old Madelyn Heilig, who likes science and says diseases are cool to learn about.

“I think it’s really fun,” she said. 

And even with the abundant bugs on display, her mom, Ashley Heilig, had a pretty good time, too. 

“I think I learned more than the kids,” she said. 

Whether it was the big-screen displays showing the historical spread of diseases like Zika virus or the tank full of fish to whom guests can feed mosquito larvae, Weaver says seeing kids have so much fun made all the hard work worth it.

“It literally brings tears to my eyes,” Weaver says. “I’ve been working on it for so long, and to see kids enjoy it, it’s awesome.”

Anastasia Mosquito Control District Education Chair Trish Becker is excited about the center, too. Elected to the board in 2018, Becker initially got interested in mosquito control because she was worried pesticides sprayed by the district could harm her organic garden and kill important pollinators. Once she realized that wasn’t the case, she found something to buzz about.

Now, serving in her second term — and with her own side hustle making bug-themed jewelry — Becker is happy the center is here to dispel bug-related myths. 

Maybe the person who grows up to develop cures or vaccines for mosquito-borne illnesses will first get interested them at the education center in St. Augustine, she imagines. 

“We really want this to be a place that educates the public,” she says. 

Madelyn Heilig, 10, particularly liked this exhibit that has guests using their deduction skills to solve a disease-related mystery. | Noah Hertz, Jacksonville Today

Mosquito Control who? 

Anastasia Mosquito Control District is an independent entity serving but separate from St. Johns County. Based in St. Augustine, the agency works closely with local and state governments to curb the spread of dangerous mosquito-borne illnesses. 

“One of the big misconceptions is mosquito control means no mosquitoes,” the district’s Chief Pilot Dana Smith tells Jacksonville Today

Smith, a former Army pilot, flies mosquito control helicopters over the heads of St. Johns County residents, spraying chemicals that kill the bugs when the district’s research and monitoring points to the potential for the spread of disease  — like when a hurricane blows past and leaves more standing water than normal, and creates a fertile breeding ground for pesky “skeeters,” as Smith calls them. 

The district’s headquarters also hosts local and traveling scientists conducting research on mosquitoes. And, even if it sounds like it goes against the idea of controlling the pests, the mosquito control district is breeding them, too. 

Thousands of mosquitoes are bred weekly for the purpose of testing new methods of killing wild mosquitoes that may carry deadly diseases. For one, the district is working on sterilizing the biting insects so they can’t increase their own ranks. 

“We are always trying to increase our arsenal for control,” Assistant Director Whitney Qualls explains. 

The district aims to control the local mosquito population by releasing males who have been left infertile with X-Ray radiation into the wild. Once launched, Qualls said, the program could benefit not just St. Johns County, but neighboring Duval and Clay counties, too. 

The center is staffed seven days a week because, as Qualls put it, “You’re on the mosquito life cycle, not your schedule.”

Anastasia Mosquito Control District Assistant Director Dr. Whitney Qualls shows off one of the many tubs containing mosquito larvae that the district’s research staff will use for testing. | Noah Hertz, Jacksonville Today

If you go

The center’s grand opening next Tuesday will kick off at 8 a.m. and include tours and a lineup of speakers including St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Sikes-Kline, federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention Vector-borne Disease Director Dr. Ian Sutherland and University of Florida Medical Entomology Lab Director Dr. Jorge Rey.

When it opens, admission to the education center will be free to the public. Once the final finishing touches are put on the exhibits, the plan is to charge a small admission fee that will be discounted for local residents. 

Hours of operation after the grand opening will be 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. Closed Monday and Tuesdays. Location: 120 EOC Drive, St. Augustine 32092 ( just west of I-95 and south of SR-16).

For more information, contact the education center at 904-257-9880 or visit the center’s website.

author image Reporter Noah Hertz is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on St. Johns County. From Central Florida, Noah got his start as an intern at WFSU, Tallahassee’s public radio station, and as a reporter at The Wakulla News. He went on to work for three years as a general assignment reporter and editor for The West Volusia Beacon in his hometown, DeLand.
author image Reporter Noah Hertz is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on St. Johns County. From Central Florida, Noah got his start as an intern at WFSU, Tallahassee’s public radio station, and as a reporter at The Wakulla News. He went on to work for three years as a general assignment reporter and editor for The West Volusia Beacon in his hometown, DeLand.

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