ITCHY BITES!: Mosquitoes might seem more aggressive than ever this summer, but there are strategies that can help you to avoid them and protect yourself against them.
By Donald Gilpin
It’s mosquito season, and the rains this summer, along with the warm weather, have increased the population of this already-prolific creature that torments New Jerseyans who like to spend time outdoors.
Mercer County sent out a warning bulletin on Facebook last week. “While our crews can help mitigate the nuisance, mosquitoes are a backyard problem, and community involvement is crucial for success in controlling them, “ said Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes. “I urge our residents to take some simple measures, such as eliminating standing water in and around their homes, to protect themselves and their families from mosquitoes.”
What else can you do, especially if you happen to be one of those frequently-bitten individuals who is particularly tasty to mosquitoes?
The Asian tiger mosquito (aedes albopictus) seems to be the type most common in New Jersey, and though there are about 3,000 species of mosquito in the world, the good news is that only about 150 species are known to occur in North America, only 63 found in New Jersey, and only
15 have been identified so far in Mercer County. Also good news is that even though mosquitoes can be very aggressive and those itchy red bites can seem unbearable, the transmission of diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, and heart worm is very rare here.
Princeton mosquito expert Lindy McBride, Princeton University associate professor of ecology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience, who claims to be “constantly looking at thousands of mosquitoes” in her lab, does note that the West Nile virus can be a threat to the elderly and the immunocompromised.
Her McBride Lab at Princeton studies a species of mosquito which McBride describes as a cousin of the tiger mosquito. The lab focuses on adaptive changes in the mosquitoes’ behavior. “Our goal is to identify specific genetic changes that underlie recently evolved behaviors and then build a complete mechanistic picture of their effects, from gene to molecules to neurons to circuits and finally to behavioral output,” McBride wrote on her website. The ultimate goal is to “inform new strategies for blocking disease transmission.”
Mercer County Mosquito Control urges residents to “spot the tiger” as a first step in eliminating the pests. “Are you attacked by small (about 1/4”) black mosquitoes with bright white stripes on the legs, back, and head? bitten mainly in the daytime? bitten mostly in shaded areas of your property? often bitten on the feet, ankles, or lower legs? seeing a ‘feeding frenzy’ around sunset? harassed by mosquitoes that won’t quit until they get a bite?” a Mosquito Control bulletin asks.
The bulletin goes on to urge individuals to enlist neighbors in the battle and to seek out containers of water located in the shade where tiger mosquitoes might lay their eggs. Larvae, or wrigglers, might be found in old tires, buckets, child pools and toys, watering cans, pet dishes, flower pots, plastic tarps, bird baths or even bottle caps, holes in the base of portable basketball nets, or plastic wrappers and bags.
To “make the kill,” Mosquito Control urges residents to discard unwanted containers, change the water at least weekly in bird baths, etc., and eliminate standing water wherever possible.
Some biological factors that attract mosquitoes, like the way you smell, you might not be able to change. As cited in a July 3 New York Times article, McBride noted that some people might at times just emit more of an odor that mosquitoes like, and she added that mosquitoes especially love forearm odor.
Christopher Bazzoli, an emergency medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic, was quoted by the Times as suggesting that, for reasons not yet determined, mosquitoes gravitate towards people with Type O blood, and that another factors in your attractiveness to mosquitoes is the pattern of how you breathe. The more you exhale, the more carbon dioxide you emit, and the more easily mosquitoes can find you.
In addition to heavy breathing, sweat can attract mosquitoes, particularly the sweat you produce when drinking alcohol.
McBride has a number of strategies for thwarting mosquitoes. “Use a big fan,” she said. “Mosquitoes sneak up on you, usually along the ground, but one fan can cover a whole patio.” In a breeze mosquitoes are far less effective than usual and will probably not be able to hit their target.
Long, light-colored, and loose-fitting clothing can also help to protect you, but black, dark blue, bright orange, and red seem to attract the mosquitoes. Insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus can keep mosquitoes away, but McBride does not recommend chemical treatments unless “you’re in a dire situation.”
Mercer County Mosquito Control (MCMC) has been in operation for more than 80 years, seeking “to protect the residents of the county from both nuisance levels of mosquitoes and diseases that may be transmitted by them,” according to the MCMC website at mercercounty.org under Mosquito Control, which provides more information on these pests and how best to combat them.